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Four Christians Missing in Embattled Country

Disappearances mount as conflict sharpens between government and Tamil rebels.

3/13/07 Sri Lanka (Compass Direct News) – A pastor, his two sons and another young man were reported missing on March 2 after they disappeared en route to a bus stop in Negombo , Sri Lanka .

Pastor Victor Emmanuel Yogarajan, 51, from the Gospel Missionary Church in Vavuniya, along with his two sons Daniel Yogarajan, 22, David Yogarajan, 20, and another young man, 20-year-old Joseph Sugandakumar, had stayed overnight in Negombo.

The four had planned to travel to Colombo by bus on March 2, but after leaving the house for the bus stop, they disappeared.

Other members of Pastor Yogarajan’s family filed a missing persons’ report, but at press time the police had found no trace of the four.

Alarming Trend

The incident is one of many similar disappearances in recent months, the National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka reported on March 2, although not all victims are Christians. In a statement issued the same day, the Asian Human Rights Commission claimed that a disappearance now occurs in Sri Lanka once every five hours.

On March 4, the Civil Monitoring Committee on Extrajudicial Killings and Disappearances said they had received almost 100 complaints of disappearances from Colombo and other areas in recent months.

The disappearances and general climate of impunity are sparked by clashes between government forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The LTTE or Tamil Tigers have been fighting for an independent Tamil homeland in the north and east since 1983, following decades of discrimination by the Sinhalese majority.

Technically, both sides are observing a cease-fire signed on February 22, 2002, but many observers describe ongoing conflict as an “undeclared civil war.”

Prior to the signing of the cease-fire, the conflict had claimed 65,000 lives and left countless internally displaced persons (IDPs) scattered across the northeast.

The Red Cross reported on Saturday (March 11) that another 10,000 people recently fled to government-controlled camps in eastern Batticaloa district, bringing the total number of internally displaced persons to 105,000 since November 2006.

European truce monitors, however, say the number is well over 200,000, while the United Nations say at least half a million have been displaced since the fighting began in 1983.

Disappearance of Fr. Jim Brown

Many Catholic priests have joined the ranks of the disappeared after speaking out on behalf of IDPs.

Last year the Rev. Father Thiruchchelvan Nihal Jim Brown (commonly known as Fr. Jim Brown) and his assistant, Wenceslaus Vinces Vimalathas, disappeared on August 20 after six armed men on motorbikes followed them from a navy checkpoint near the village of Allaipiddy on Kayts island, off the Jaffna peninsula. (See Compass Direct News, “Churches Increasingly Targeted in Civil War,” February 20.)

Navy commanders have denied arresting the two men.

Fr. Brown and Vimalathas had gone to visit Fr. Brown’s church in the parish of St. Philip Neri. The church and predominantly Catholic neighborhood were abandoned a week earlier, after a firefight broke out on August 13 between navy officers and the LTTE, leaving 15 civilians dead and at least 54 injured.

Many villagers sought shelter at the church of St. Philip Neri . When the fighting died down, Fr. Brown helped about 800 people move to St. Mary’s church in the nearby town of Kayts . Some witnesses said Fr. Brown got down on his knees at a checkpoint to request a safe transfer.

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

Fr. 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 Fr. Raj with death after he protested the shootings.

In February, a special Commission of Inquiry – established by Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakse in 2006 – was ordered to investigate the disappearances of Fr. Brown and Vimalathas in response to repeated urging by the Catholic Church and human rights organizations.

Fr. Brown and Vimalathas were sixth on the commission’s list of disappearances to investigate.

Monks Demand End to Cease-fire

Last month, on the fifth anniversary of the cease-fire, the country’s leading Buddhist monks marched through the capital, Colombo , demanding an end to the 2002 agreement, Time magazine reported on February 22.

Part of the Sinhalese majority, many Buddhist clergy have long opposed any solution to the conflict that does not involve military defeat of the Tamil rebels.

Also in February, the Buddhist nationalist Jathika Hela Urimaya party (JHU) officially joined a governing coalition led by the prime minister giving the JHU considerably more influence in Parliament. The JHU has consistently opposed any power-sharing agreements with the rebels, though Prime Minister Rajapakse favors limited autonomy for the LTTE.

JHU members say the cease-fire favors the rebels and should be scrapped.

The JHU is also the main sponsor of a Bill on the Prohibition of Forcible Conversion that is still under consideration in Parliament. This anti-conversion bill, modeled after similar laws in India , aims to prevent conversion from one religion to another “by force or fraudulent means” and would impose strict penalties on any person convicted of illegal conversion.

Such laws have been used in India to file false charges against Christians whose social relief projects are labeled “fraudulent” means for “luring” Hindus.