Tamil Catholics arrive in a motorized trailer at the Sacred Heart Church in Mutur, near Trincomalee, in Sri Lanka in this April 27, 2006 file photo, as they take refuge during a military offensive. Some 100 people took refuge in this church after the Sri Lankan military carried out aerial bombings on nearby rebel Tamil Tiger areas following an assassination attempt on army chief Sarath Foneska in Colombo. (Photo: AFP)
They came with oil lamps and garlands, and some even brought the favorite meals of their lost ones as they gathered to remember their war dead in front of broken tombstones and handwritten plaques.
Every year on Nov. 27, thousands of Tamil-speaking people from the Northern and Eastern provinces of Sri Lanka gather at the site of what were once cemeteries of those who perished in Sri Lanka's civil war (1983-2009).
But no one from the dominant Sinhala-speaking community in the south — including Catholic priests, nuns and laity — ever participates in the annual event that is politically controversial and socially sensitive.
The social discrimination Tamil-speaking people experience in Sinhala-majority Sri Lanka finds expression in the Catholic Church too, almost dividing it into two churches.
The civil war (1983-2009), between the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, who demanded a separate homeland for Tamils, increased social alienation. The war cemeteries built by the Tigers were bulldozed by the army after it crushed the armed struggle.
Roman Catholic nun Sophie Bastianpillai speaks at a religious meeting in the Sri Lankan capital of Colombo on Jan. 13, 1999, in a bid to bring peace to a nation where more than 55,000 people were killed in Tamil separatist violence. Spearheading the rare multi-religious group is Sri Lanka's Archbishop Nicholas Marcus Fernando (2nd R) who is flanked by Buddhist monk Kotogoda Dhamawasa (2nd L) and Muslim representative Al Aleeim Zarook. (Photo: AFP)
The ethnic split
Many Tamil Catholics feel that the higher Church authorities on the island let them down by failing to take a stand when they were experiencing immense difficulties in the past, said Father Ruban Mariyampillai, former editor of Paathukaavalan, the official Tamil journal of Jaffna diocese.
“It is true that people both in the North and South were deeply divided along the lines of race, ethnicity and identity on political grounds but that shouldn’t have influenced the Church as an institution of faith,” Father Mariyampillai,told UCA News at his residence in Jaffna.
Even after the war, “nothing much has changed in the conduct of the Church when it comes to voicing concerns of Tamil-speaking people in this country,” Father Mariyambillai observed.
“Unfortunately, there have been no serious attempts to unite Catholics in the North and East with the South to understand the difficulties each other face as the first step towards reconciliation,” the priest said.
He said it was “very unfortunate to see” during recent protests against the government, groups trying to initiate a conversation on issues faced by Tamil people in the South but nothing materialized to move it further.”
The survivors of the civil war are left alone to demand answers, such as the issues of enforced disappearances, justice for alleged war crimes and atrocities against the minority community, especially those committed during the final phases of the war, Mangalarajah said.
In the final phases of the war in 2009, an estimated 40,000 civilians were killed and the army grossly violated the rights of many people, according to a UN panel appointed in 2011.
A man lights an oil lamp as he pays homage to people who died in Sri Lanka's civil war at a memorial bearing the names of victims on their Remembrance Day on Nov. 27, 2022. (Photo: Rubatheesan Sandran / UCA News)
Tamil Catholics’ isolation
Following the end of the war in 2009, a delegation representing the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Sri Lanka visited war-torn areas in the North and East provinces and met various stakeholders including military officials on issues faced by the Tamils. A report on the visit was also tabled at a conference meeting.
“Thirteen years since the end of the war and the visit of that delegation, almost all the issues raised in the report are yet to be resolved,” Historian and Head of Commission for Justice and Peace of the Catholic Diocese of Jaffna Father S.V.B. Mangalarajah told UCA News.
UCA News contacted the Archbishop's House in Colombo to gather a more nuanced version of this tragic story of a deeply offended faith community, but did not receive any response.
The radio silence in the South, even from the Archbishop's House, hurts Catholics in the two former war-torn provinces.
Their difficult past with its inconvenient political and social context has ensured that the four dioceses of Batticaloa, Jaffna, Mannar and Trincomalee have come to work more closely on issues concerning their faithful.
“Unfortunately, there have been no serious attempts to unite Catholics in the North and East with the South to understand the difficulties they face as the first step towards reconciliation,” Father Mariyampillai added.
He said it was “very unfortunate” that during the latest protests against the government in response to the deepening economic crisis, allegations of corruption, rising inflation, and shortages of essential commodities, nothing came of attempts by some groups to try and initiate a conversation on issues faced by Tamil people.
The months-long protests and emergency situation in the capital Colombo earlier this year ended after President Ranil Wickremesinghe took office on July 20. Parliament chose him to lead the government to complete the remainder of former president Gotabaya Rajapaksa's two-year term after he fled the country in the wake of widespread protests in the capital.
“In the past, Tamil-speaking people in the North and East were subjected to oppressive measures through legislation such as the Prevention of Terrorism Act and certain emergency regulations but the same laws are currently being used by the government to suppress protests in the South,” the priest said.
Two Tamil women pay homage to people who died in Sri Lanka's civil war at a memorial bearing the names of victims on their Remembrance Day on Nov. 27, 2022. (Photo: Rubatheesan Sandran/UCA News)
History of the Tamil-Sinhala divide
Even before Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) gained independence from Britain in 1948, ethnic tensions started to erupt as minority communities demanded equal political representation in a country, where Sinhalese made up over 70 percent of the population.
As the second largest minority representing 12 percent of the population, the Tamil political leadership led by Ilankai Tamil Arasu Katchchi or the Federal Party resorted to democratic means such as satyagraha — passive resistance and peaceful sit-in protests, which became targets for majority hardliner groups.
The Sinhala Only Act adopted in 1956 made things worse as Sinhala became the country's sole official language, effectively reducing Tamil-speaking individuals to second-class citizens in their own country.
The University Standardization system introduced in 1973 saw the number of Tamil students entering state-run universities fall sharply while students in the South emerged as the ultimate beneficiaries.
As state laws and policies increasingly sidelined Tamil people, Tamil youths took to the streets demanding equal representation in state universities.
With successive governments in the South failing to devolve powers and abandoning political agreements reached earlier, the prominent pro-Tamil party — the Tamil Tamil United Liberation Front — called for a separate state ahead of the 1977 general election and secured an overwhelming mandate from the northern and eastern parts of the country.
The 1983 Black July riots in Colombo saw Tamils and their properties in the South targeted by militant Sinhala mobs. The riots claimed the lives of at least 3,000 Tamils.
Following the riots, sections of Tamil youths took up arms against the government under various militant groups, hoping to gain a Tamil homeland (Eelam) comprising the northern and eastern parts of the country where they were in the majority, triggering the protracted war.
Photographs of seven Catholic priests killed during the Sri Lankan civil war are showcased near a memorial to those killed during the three-decade-long war that ended in 2009. (Photo: Rubatheesan Sandran / UCA News)
Hierarchical double standards
Until recently, Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith of Colombo had been supporting the government, stressing that Buddhism is the majority religion and churchgoers and others should live side-by-side with them, Father Mangalarajah observed.
But after the 2019 Easter Sunday bombings, there was a change in Church policies led by Cardinal Ranjith.
“There is nothing wrong with that and the cardinal, rightfully so, is trying his best to secure justice for those innocent lives that were lost in the attacks. But at the same time, when the worst things happened here, there was no condemnation from the Church,” the priest said.
For example, in 1995, when 147 people who took refuge in the Navaly Church in Jaffna were killed in an aerial bombing that also left over 200 others injured, only the bishops in the North and East raised their concerns but there was no response from the South, Father Mangalarajah recalled.
The bombing happened during the tenure of President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumarathunga, who later called the attack a “mistake.” But accountability was never fixed, and the Church did not press for it.
The civil war took a heavy human toll on the Church too. At least seven clergymen and several nuns were killed.
One of them, Father Mary Bastian, was killed at his parish house in 1995 but the Colombo-based media reported that he had escaped to India via Mannar.
A Catholic convent in Colombo, run by the Sisters of Jaffna, wanted to organize a Mass in his memory and had invited the then nuncio.
“Probably advised by the bishops in the South and others, the nuncio withdrew from attending the Mass. That was the attitude of the hierarchy at that time,” Father Mangalarajah said.
He said they were not against the cardinal demanding justice for those who were killed in the Easter Sunday bombings. “We are only asking why the cardinal is not demanding the same for the Tamils?”
Right from the beginning, Catholics in warn-torn provinces had been clamoring for international intervention but the South kept saying there was no need for that for over two decades, Father Mangalarajah said.
Father Pathinathan Josephdas Jebaratnam, the vicar-general of Jaffna diocese, says the deadly Easter Sunday bombings were in a way 'an eye opener' for Catholics in the South. (Rubatheesan Sandran/UCA News)
Colombo Church changes stance
Before the Easter Sunday attacks, Cardinal Ranjith was against any sort of foreign interference in the country’s affairs — a position maintained by the Rajapaksa regime amid mounting global pressure to probe alleged war crimes and other human rights violations committed during the civil war.
Cardinal Ranjith was seen as very close to the Rajapaksa regime and an influential figure within government policy-making circles at that time. And yet, he remained silent on the plight of Tamil Christians, their community leaders say.
His fellow clergymen maintained the Church should not take a political stand on sensitive issues such as the state’s wartime accountability.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa was the top defense official during the final phase of the war during the presidency of his elder brother, Mahinda Rajapaksa.
The Church firmly stood with the government in arguing that investigations of war crimes and securing justice for Tamil war victims were an internal issue of Sri Lanka and ruled out the intervention of international agencies.
But when it came to the Easter Sunday victims, the cardinal sought the intervention of international agencies in securing justice after the failure of successive governments to prosecute the real masterminds.
He even appealed to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva in March for a mechanism to probe the attacks that killed 279 people. The appeal to the UN came a week after he met Pope Francis.
A group of Tamil clergy and parish priests attached to the North and East Christian Religious Forum for Justice and Peace wrote to Cardinal Ranjith seeking his support for similar justice calls by Tamil-speaking people.
“The written response from the cardinal was that it was the responsibility of the respective bishops to raise concerns that affect the people in their dioceses. He also assured his solidarity in such instances,” Father Ravichandran Emmanuel, a senior lecturer attached to the Christian and Islamic Civilization Department at the University of Jaffna who had seen the letter, told UCA News.
Catholic nuns pay homage to people who died in Sri Lanka's civil war at a memorial bearing the names of victims on their Remembrance Day on Nov. 27, 2022. (Photo: Rubatheesan Sandran/UCA News)
North-East Bishops’ forum
Bishops in the aggrieved provinces have been clamoring for a separate North-East Bishop's forum to raise their social and political concerns more independently in recent times.
The Tamil bishops feel they are a minority in the national bishop's conference, Tamil priests say.
Over the past two years, the prelates have gone ahead and set up a provisional body named the North-East Bishop Council to voice concerns on issues that affect people in the two regions.
One of their decisions is observing the Mullivaikaal genocide on May 18 — the day the civil war ended in 2009 — as a “day of remembrance and prayer” for the Tamil-speaking Catholics.
The Council, in a statement signed by the four bishops, said the day is meant to uphold the victims’ “right to remember.”
The survivors and witnesses of the last phase of the war and of the preceding decades, mourn their dead who were hurriedly buried without proper last rites, it said.
“Though not officially sanctioned by Rome, we are having provisional periodical meetings regularly with the bishops of Jaffna, Batticaloa, Mannar and Trincomalee and take a collective stand on critical issues. This type of statement cannot be expected from the national bishops’ conference,” Father Mangalarajah said.
This is not the first time that prelates in the two provinces have come up with an initiative to voice concerns from their respective dioceses.
In the early 1990s, southern clergy opposed the move for a separate forum for Tamil bishops arguing that the nation was fighting a Tamil separatist war and the move could be interpreted as an attempt to set up a ‘Tamil Eelam Church,’ they warned.
“Now that problem is over. We are not asking for separation. We have our own unique issues compared to the South such as the poaching of our catch by Indian fishermen in northern waters and land grabbing attempts by state agencies, etc. We are the people who are affected.… We have a right to express the concerns of people here,” Father Mangalarajah said.
A soldier stands guard during a Mass outside St. Sebastian's Church in Negombo on May 9, 2019. Sri Lanka's St. Sebastian's Church partially opened for worship on May 9 even as security forces were rebuilding a shrine inside following an Easter suicide bombing. (Photo: AFP)
Eye-opening Easter bombings
Father Pathinathan Josephdas Jebaratnam, the vicar-general of Jaffna diocese, says the deadly Easter Sunday bombings were in a way “an eye opener” for Catholics in the South.
“It was not only the worst atrocity committed since the civil war ended, but something that made one realize what Tamil people have been demanding all these years,” Father Jebaratnam told UCA News.
According to the priest, the Sinhalese majority, including Catholics, were till then “in a situation to justify the war.”
Father Julian Patrick Perera, the parish priest of St Anthony’s Church, Kollupitiya, Colombo, agreed.
“Unfortunately, southern people never felt that what happened to people in the North or East would happen to them one day,” he said. “There was no middle ground here and we got carried away by political propaganda at the time [of the civil war].”
The parish priest though felt that Catholics at both ends of the nation had gone through trauma and “it was time they admit” the mistakes and come to terms “in order to move on.”
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