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Refugees celebrate All Souls´ Day behind barbed wire

Sri Lanka

November 05 2009

Thousands of displaced Sri Lankan Catholics attended specially organized All Souls´ Day Masses in refugee camps and prayed for those who died in the decades-long civil war.


Inside a refugee camp in Vavuniya, northern Sri Lanka (File photo)

Refugees want to tend their loved ones´ graves on the special day dedicated to the dead, said Catholic priests visiting the camps.

However, these graves are far from the camps which are surrounded by barbed wire, and refugees are not allowed to leave until the search for Tamil Tiger rebels is over and land mines cleared from around villages.

Instead, on the morning of Nov. 2, prayer leaders in Arunachalam camp in northern Sri Lanka cleared an open area for the celebration of Mass. An altar -- a table covered with a cloth -- was prepared, as well as a book in which people wrote down the names of about 1,500 people killed in the civil war between government troops and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

The war, which started in 1983, ended in May.

Father Ruban Fernando of Mannar diocese celebrated the Mass at the camp. He read the names of the dead and prayed for them, some of whom were not Catholics.

He told UCA News that some of the refugees "are not sure whether their loved ones are alive or dead," adding that many shed tears throughout the Mass. "I consoled them," he added.

On All Souls´ Day, Catholics in the country usually visit cemeteries from early morning to evening. There they clean the graves, lay flowers, light candles, pray and give alms.

Now, "a Catholic tradition has been broken," said Oblate Father Celestine Mascringe, one of several priests allowed to celebrate Sunday Masses in refugee camps.

Speaking at the entrance to Arunachalam camp, he said camp residents feel "fear and sadness, but they have hope for the future." Arunachalam camp, located in a recently cleared jungle area, houses about 20,000 Tamil civilians of whom about 2,000 are Catholics.

The priest also celebrated Mass at Kadirgamar camp, opposite the Arunachalam camp, for some 800 Catholics gathered in a metal-roofed makeshift church.

A Catholic refugee from Arunachalam camp, speaking to UCA News through the barbed-wire fencing, said: "God will not give up on us. He will ease our pain and give us hope and courage."

Another refugee, a Hindu mother of two, said that the Catholics prayed also for Hindu Tamils who have died in the civil war.

Father Anthony Victor Sosai, vicar general of Mannar diocese said the military has permitted eight priests to hold All Souls´ Day Masses in some 20 camps.

Under increasing pressure from the international community regarding the continued detention of the displaced, President Mahinda Rajapaksa recently said he expected everyone in the camps to be resettled by the end of January.

So far only 50,000 out of a total of 280,000 civilians have been allowed to leave the camps.