Sri Lankan bishop pleads for peace

A bishop in northern Sri Lanka has appealed to the country’s president to stop bombing civilians after carrying out an undercover mercy mission to help people trapped in a war-zone.

Denied formal access to the northerly Vanni district affected by fighting between government troops and rebels, Bishop Thomas Savundaranayagam of Jaffna travelled incognito to see the situation for himself and assess the people’s needs.

During his visit last month, he distributed emergency help given by Aid to the Church in Need, the Catholic charity for persecuted and other suffering Christians.

His visit coincided with the renewal of hostilities after Colombo-based government forces successfully seized control of Vanni following the capture of Kilinochy and Paranathan.

In a message to ACN announcing the aid distribution, he described seeing crowds of displaced people living in very cramped conditions.

The people had fled villages caught up in the conflict between the army and the Tamil Tiger rebels.

Bishop Savundaranayagam, whose diocese covers northern Sri Lanka including the Jaffna peninsula, said that priests and nuns in Vanni were living alongside lay people in small huts.

He explained that the ACN aid was being distributed by the clergy who were desperately trying to assist the people in any way possible.

The trip led the bishop to write an urgent request to Sri Lanka’s president, Mahinda Rajapakse, begging that civilians be protected from further military action.

Writing to the president, he described how “owing to the on-going shelling and aerial bombings by Sri Lankan Security Forces… people are getting killed and [are] sustaining injury.”

Bishop Savundaranayagam begged the government not to attack churches and temples where displaced people were being urged to gather for their protection.

In his letter to President Rajapakse he wrote: “Churches and temples are traditionally places of refuge in time of danger.

“Hence I am pleading with the government to desist from firing mortar shells at the places of worship and stop aerial bombings at civilian places.”

He underlined that the government was duty-bound to open a safe corridor for people to escape places affected by shelling.

The bishop has also criticised the rebels for failing to provide safe passage for civilians.

Speaking to ACN from Jaffna earlier in the week, the bishop described how the government had not stopped the shelling, despite his pleas.

Lamenting the continued civilian fatalities through indiscriminate bombing, he said: “It is difficult to identify civilians from Tigers at 20,000 feet in the air.”

He said that despite his letter to the president, “nothing is happening as the government says they have to liberate the area – but people still suffer”.

The internally displaced people as well as the local civilians have taken refuge along the Paranthan-Mulaithivu road and are heavily concentrated between Dharmapuram and Puthukudiyiruppu.

Bishop Savundaranayagam said that the government has been sending food and medical aid to civilians via the Red Cross, but added that many hospitals have been displaced and medical aid is being provided in makeshift facilities.

The bishop has been highly critical of the armed conflict. He said: “A military solution can never bring about a lasting solution to the present problem.”

The government ended a six-year truce with rebels in 2006 and vowed to secure victory in the 26-year conflict that has killed at least 70,000 people.

By late last year, the Tamil Tigers’ bid for a separate homeland looked in jeopardy after the army drove them to the far north of the country.