Catholics gathered May 18 to pay tribute to Father Mariampillai Sarathjeevan who died of a heart attack as he accompanied refugees out of a conflict area during the final days of Sri Lanka's civil war. (ucanews photo by Quintus Colombage)
A Jaffna diocesan official is demanding an answer from Sri Lankan authorities as to what happened to Catholic priests who disappeared under suspicious circumstances during the country's decades-long civil war.
"The local church still seeks an answer in court and from the army about the whereabouts of the missing priests but no information has been forthcoming," said Father S.V.B. Mangalarajah, president of the Justice and Peace Commission in Jaffna Diocese that was at the center of the civil war.
The war that began in 1983 came to an official end May 18, 2009 when the government overran Tamil Tigers, an insurgent group that fought to carve out a separate Tamil homeland in the country's North and East.
Local diocesan sources say four Catholic priests disappeared and another 10 were killed.*
"What happened to the priests, no one knows," said Father Mangalarajah at a memorial gathering to remember Father Mariampillai Sarathjeevan at Our Lady of Fatima's Church in Uruthirapuram, May 18. Father Sarathjeevan died of a heart attack as he accompanied refugees from a conflict area during the final days of the war.
"But what happened to our missing Sri Lankan priests Father Jim Brown and Father Joseph Francis who surrendered to the army? asked Father Mangalarajah.
"Father Francis was among those leaving the war zone in May 2009 and passing through a military checkpoint where some people saw him but he is no more today," said the priest.
Father Jim Brown was last seen on a motorcycle at a checkpoint in Allaipiddy in 2006, an area then tightly controlled by security forces, said Father Mangalarajah.
"It was during a time of escalated warfare between the Sri Lankan military and the Tamil Tigers," he said. Father Brown, 34, had offered his church as a sanctuary to civilians who were being subjected to intense shelling in the Allaipiddy area.
The other priests who disappeared were American Jesuit Father Herbiet and Father Selvarajah who both disappeared in 1990.
"We are waiting for a sincere attempt from the new government to find the culprits, reveal the truth and show accountability so as to really promote reconciliation," said Father Mangalarajah.
According to civic rights activists many paramilitary groups, government security forces and the Tamil Tigers are responsible for the enforced disappearances during the conflict.
The U.N. Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances says Sri Lanka ranks second only to Iraq when it comes to wartime disappearances.
According to the United Nations the war claimed the lives of at least 40,000 civilians in its final days alone.
Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena was elected in January 2015 amid promises to promote reconciliation between Tamils, the country's largest ethnic minority, and the majority Sinhalese.
*These paragraphs were corrected. The 10th paragraph misstated that Father Mary Bastian went missing in 1985. Father Bastian was shot and killed along with 10 other civilians in 1985.