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Tamil Catholics demand return of navy-occupied land

Villagers displaced from island by Sri Lankan civil war return by boat in protest supported by priests, nuns and activists

Tamil Catholics demand return of navy-occupied land

Villagers pray at Our Lady of the Rosary Church on Iranaitheevu Island on April 23 after their protest march. (Photo by Niranjani Roland/ucanews.com)

Niranjani Roland, Kilinochchi
Sri Lanka

April 26, 2018

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Catholic priests, nuns and civic activists joined villagers from Iranaitheevu Island in a protest march to demand the return of land occupied by the Sri Lankan Navy.

The march started after a Mass at Iranaimaatha Church in Iranaimathanagar in Kilinochchi district on April 23.

Tamil Catholics want the government to return their ancestral land, which they had occupied for 200 years until they were forcibly displaced in 1992 due to the civil war (1983–2009).

Atputharani Jeyaseelan, a 53-year-old mother of three, said villagers had been deceived by government officials.

"We have had several discussions with the minister of defense, navy and government officials over the last year but didn't get a favorable response. We are still fighting for the 359th day for our land."

Villagers started their continuous protest on May 1, 2017.

Some 178 families were displaced in 1992 due to the civil war. About 400 families are living in Iranaimathanagar on the mainland near Iranaitheevu Island.

Jeyaseelan said villagers had access to the island with restrictions until 2007. "After that, the navy prohibited access to our land and all villagers have difficulties in making a living," she said.

Protesters, holding placards and shouting slogans, marched to the beach in Iranaimathanagar. Around 300 used 40 boats to travel to Iranaitheevu Island, where they went to Our Lady of the Rosary Church.

Three navy officers asked them why they had come to the island. They said a Buddhist organization had donated one million Sri Lankan rupees (US$6,400) for renovation of the church.

Father Arul Selvan, parish priest of Iranaimaatha Church, said the navy should release land to the villagers.

"These people need to visit their church and pray. They like to carry out their livelihoods. If you want to carry out your duty, you can, but I request the navy and government officials to allow people who have [land] deeds to be involved in their livelihoods. Until they get a proper answer, they will remain here," said Father Selvan.

Father Selvan phoned Kilinochchi's government agent to say that people would stay on the island until the government responded.

Mariya Colodita, a villager from the island, said people could maintain the church if their land was returned.

"We don't want any help. We have all the resources here and can earn money by fishing, cultivating land and raising livestock to renovate our church and rebuild our lives," she said.

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