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Family Despairs as Reports Claim Recovered Body That of Missing Priest

ICC Note: Remains of priest who went missing after he challenged the Sri Lankan navy over the destruction of a church and killing of 20 people with artillery fire are finally found.

Catholic Online

6/11/07 Sri Lanka (UCAN) – June 4 was Father Thiruchelvam Nihal Jim Brown’s birthday. But there were no celebrations in his Colombo family home, just heartache over “shocking news.”

Sinhalese and Tamil newspapers had just claimed that a “mutilated torso” packed in a sand bag belonged to the missing Catholic priest. The sandbag was found off the coast of the Jaffna peninsula, near Pungudutheevu, on March 14. According to the reports, unofficial hospital sources confirmed a DNA match.

The priest’s family was distraught at the news, even though a judge must rule on the findings in court before they can officially be released. Father Jim Brown was serving 300 kilometers north of the capital at St. Philip Neri parish priest in Allaipiddy, outside Jaffna , when he disappeared last August.

“I do not like to see the photograph,” said Thiruchelvam Regan, 20, pointing to the photo on the table of his eldest brother. Rather than marking the priest’s 35th birthday, June 4 was “a funeral day for us,” the youngest brother told UCA News.

Neighbors, relatives and friends have visited to console the family.

“A shiver went through me down to my toes,” said Manoharan Pushpam, 52, the priest’s aunt, who owns the house. She told UCA News she was shocked and tired from crying after learning the news from the media.

“My heart has been pounding, pounding from the time I heard about this newspaper report,” added Manuel Aseervathampillai, 66, the priest’s uncle. “He is a Samaritan. During the war period, Father Jim fetched bundles of essential goods for his laypeople, carrying them on his shoulders for several kilometers on foot through the no man’s land between the rival forces.”

Rebels from the minority Tamil community, concentrated in the north and east of the country, launched an armed independence struggle in 1983. Heavy fighting has resumed around Jaffna during the past year and a half as a 2002 cease-fire unraveled.

Aseervathampillai said his nephew “is the father of some 40 children who lost their parents in the 2004 tsunami.” Now this latest news is “the talk of the laypeople in the churchyards these days.”

Father Jim Brown went missing Aug. 20, 2006, with his assistant, Wenceslaus Vincent Vimalan, 40, a father of five. He had taken up his new post as parish priest in Allaipiddy only 10 days earlier.

According to Jaffna diocese’s Commission for Justice and Peace, the priest confronted the navy after artillery fire destroyed a church, killing 20 people and injuring many more. The navy reportedly granted reluctant permission for the priest to take the injured to the hospital.

On Aug. 19, the priest visited Bishop Thomas Savundaranayagam of Jaffna . He came to discuss the incident, the navy’s angry reaction and the difficulties he faced in obtaining provisions for the people.

The next day he and his assistant disappeared.

Priests and laypeople searched and staged demonstrations. The Catholic bishops issued several statements calling on the government to find the missing Church people.

After a fisherman found the weighted sandbag holding the torso, the contents were sent to Colombo for DNA tests.

Pushpam said Bishop Savundaranayagam asked the family a month ago for blood samples that could be used for DNA testing. She took the priest’s parents to the hospital, where they were given permission to see the torso. “But we did not want to see it,” the aunt said.

Father Jim Brown’s parents are poor farmers. He joined St. Martin’s Minor Seminary in Jaffna at age 14.

“Though he is the eldest of four children, my sister sent him to the seminary,” Pushpam said. In Sri Lanka , the eldest child usually looks after the family.

“We have lost a good friendly servant,” Father Anthony Joseph told UCA News. Father Joseph, assistant parish priest at St. Lucia ‘s Cathedral in Colombo , attended seminary with Father Jim Brown. The two were ordained together in Jaffna on April 29, 2004.

The disappearance of the priest and his assistant is only one of many such cases in this country beset by war since 1983.

“My son, my son,” Pushpam cried for her nephew. “He loved me very much, as I am a widow. He is now with God, but I cannot bear this shock.”