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Churches Increasingly Targeted In Civil War

Christians report shelling of churches, deaths and disappearance of priests.

2/20/07 Sri Lanka (Compass Direct News) – Following a renewed outbreak of civil war between the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), churches in the northeast are fast becoming another war casualty.

The LTTE has fought for an independent Tamil homeland in the northeast since the 1980s. While both parties to the conflict say they are committed to a 2002 ceasefire agreement, analysts say the current situation is more like an “undeclared war.”

Since hostilities resumed in earnest last year, churches on the Jaffna Peninsula have provided shelter to hundreds of internally displaced people (IDPs), prompting retaliatory raids by the Sri Lankan army.

“One wonders if the attacks on churches are just a coincidence, or an attempt by the government to warn the clergy not to give protection to these defenseless people,” one source, who preferred to remain anonymous, told Compass.

The same source said those speaking out for IDPs were often silenced by intimidation or “elimination,” often in the form of unexplained disappearances.

“The church, unable to remain a silent witness, has raised its concerns with the outside world,” the source added. “The government of Sri Lanka has taken note and appears to have sought, directly and indirectly, to silence these voices by abducting and sometimes eliminating church officials.”

Deaths and Disappearances

Just over a month ago, on January 13, members of the Sri Lankan security forces gunned down the Rev. Nallathamby Gnanaseelan.

Gnanaseelan, 38 years old and father to four young children, led the Tamil Mission Church in Jaffna .

On the morning he was killed, Gnanaseelan had dropped his wife and daughter at a local hospital and headed towards his church, where members had gathered for prayer. Before he could reach the church, however, he was shot in the stomach and head. His Bible, bag, identity card and motorbike were taken, and he was left lying in the street.

Security forces initially said Gnanaseelan was shot for carrying explosives but later said he was shot for not stopping when ordered to do so. Local Christians say the initial accusation was a deliberate attempt to frame the minister, who was a respected member of the National Christian Evangelical Alliance Clergy Fellowship in Jaffna and was not involved in any political activity.

The Rev. Father Thiruchchelvan Nihal Jim Brown (commonly known as Fr. Jim Brown) and his assistant, Wenceslaus Vinces Vimalathas, may have met a similar fate. Both men disappeared on August 20, 2006, according to local media reports.

Witnesses said they saw the two men in the village of Allaipiddy , on Kayts Island off the Jaffna Peninsula , at about 2:15 p.m. on August 20, being followed from the Allaipiddy navy checkpoint by six armed men on motorbikes. Neither man has been seen since.

Navy commanders denied arresting the two men.

Brown and Vimalathas had gone to visit Brown’s church in the parish of St. Philip Neri. The church and predominantly Catholic neighborhood were abandoned a week earlier, after the church was shelled on August 13.

A firefight had broken out on August 13 between navy officers and the LTTE in Allaipiddy, leaving 15 civilians dead and at least 54 injured in the crossfire. Many villagers sought shelter at the church of St. Philip Neri . When the fighting died down, Brown helped about 800 people move to St. Mary’s church in the nearby town of Kayts . Some witnesses said he got down on his knees at the checkpoint to request a safe transfer.

Shortly afterwards, according to an Amnesty International report, the commanding officer of the navy in Allaipiddy scolded Brown and accused him of helping the Tigers to build bunkers. Brown, however, said the church members had dug bunkers to protect themselves from the shelling and bombing of church premises.

Brown had replaced another priest, Father Amal Raj, who sought transfer from St. Philip Neri’s after the May 13 murder of a Catholic family in the village. Naval officers threatened Raj with death after he protested the shootings.

Security forces had previously attacked Alaipiddy and two other Catholic-majority villages, Vankalai and Pesalai, on June 17, 2006. During the attack, a grenade was thrown into Our Lady of Victory Church in Pesalai, where 200 people had taken shelter – killing one person and injuring 47.

“We were all inside the church when the navy and army broke in and opened fire. A grenade was thrown in through a window,” Mariyadas Loggu told the Associated Press.

Civilians often take shelter in churches, viewing them as safe havens; in some villages, residents who are fearful of air raids sleep every night at the local Catholic church.

Catholic priests elsewhere on the Jaffna Peninsula have confirmed the deaths of many civilians through aerial bombing, shelling, shooting and crossfire – much of it carried out by Sri Lankan security forces.

Civilians are targeted by both army and Tiger rebels – with soldiers arresting and interrogating hundreds, while Tiger rebels have tortured and killed whole families suspected of siding with government forces.

By September 2006, more than 200,000 people had been displaced in the northeast, with homes, schools and places of worship destroyed indiscriminately.

Blurred Lines

Church officials have also complained about government blockades on the Jaffna Peninsula , cutting off vital food and medical supplies to civilians who are affected by, but not involved in the conflict.

“In a civil war, the lines are blurred indeed,” Godfrey Yogarajah, president of the National Christian Evangelical Fellowship of Sri Lanka (NCEASL), told Compass. He pointed out that religious liberty issues are intrinsically linked to the general climate of human rights abuse.

The NCEASL has called for urgent United Nations intervention.

“Thousands of people are being arbitrarily arrested, tortured or ill-treated,” NCEASL declared in a recent statement. “We call upon the international community to raise their voices and prevent the massacre of the innocents in this country. The establishing of a United Nations human rights monitoring mission in Sri Lanka is an urgent need. The world cannot stand by and watch as this situation deteriorates, while every day, people pay with their lives.”

Attacks on churches are not new to Sri Lanka . Since 2002, large mobs – often led by Buddhist monks – have led a string of attacks on churches in the south. Buddhist clergy have also campaigned for a national anti-conversion law, modeled on similar laws in India , to restrict the growth of Christian churches.

Two separate anti-conversion bills are still making their way through Parliament, although the renewal of civil war has brought a temporary halt to the campaign. (See Compass Direct News, “Anti-Conversion Bill Revived in Parliament,” April 26, 2006.)



Threats and Attacks in Southern Sri Lanka

Bangaragama: At about 11:15 a.m. on February 11, a mob began throwing stones into a hall owned by the Christian Center in Bangaragama, Colombo district, as people were praying inside.

Roofing was damaged but no injuries were recorded. A complaint was registered with local police.

This was not the first attack on the Christian Center . On December 24, 2006, anti-Christian posters were displayed in the town, and on December 10 a mob smashed the hall windows.

Polonnaruwa: On the morning of February 9, people traveling in a van with a loudspeaker began calling residents of Polonnaruwa district to a public meeting at the New Town Buddhist Vihara. The meeting was called to “chase away Christians and those who help Christians.”

The van was spotted in several areas of Polonnaruwa district. Although permission to use a loudspeaker is required by law, police said no such permission had been granted.

When the event took place at 3 p.m., about 150 people attended. The police were present and took action to prevent any outbreak of violence. During the meeting, however, the crowd decided they would strongly advise Christian clergy in the area to stop Christian activity in the district or face harsh consequences.

This threat, if carried out, would violate the freedom of religion and freedom of worship guaranteed to all citizens under Sri Lankan law.

Source: National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka