06 May 2008
In our April 9th issue, in an article entitled “Iconic of the times” one of Tamil Guardian’s columnists discussed the rationale behind the Sinhala-Buddhist Sri Lankan state’s attacks on the Northeastern Church, among which was last month’s shelling of the historic Catholic shrine of Our Lady of Madhu.
The columnist argued that more important than the theological differences between the Sinhala interpretation of Buddhism and Catholicism is the inevitable conflict between an oppressive state and the social justice doctrine of the modern Catholic Church.
The point was exemplified within days by the assassination by Sri Lankan commandos of one of the best-loved and most prominent priests and human rights activists in the Vanni, Father Karunaratnam.
His vehicle was blasted by a command-detonated landmine even as it was being towed by a recovery truck, having broken down as Father Karunaratnam returned from Sunday Mass.
He was the founder and Head of the NESOHR (North East Secretariat of Human Rights), the only local Human Rights monitoring organisation in the LTTE controlled North. NESOHR has been a vocal chronicler of government aerial attacks, killings and abductions in the North East.
More telling than the murder itself is the almost non-existent international response: o Other than former peace broker Norway, not a single foreign government commented on, let alone condemned, the assassination.
The current tension between the Tamil Catholic Church and the Sinhala Buddhist state begins with persistent attempts, over a one-year period, by the Bishop of the Diocese of Mannar, Dr. Joseph Rajapu to have the area around the venerated Madhu Church declared a peace zone.
The Madhu Church, Sri Lanka’s oldest and most prominent Catholic shrine, was at the time also one of the largest refugee sanctuaries in the Tamil north.
It was also the objective of a major Sri Lankan military offensive in Mannar which began in July last year and has been inching forward amid ferocious resistance from the Tamil Tigers..
According to Bishop Joseph, the LTTE had agreed for the shrine to be designated a peace zone, if the Colombo government would give a similar guarantee. However Colombo rejected the Bishop’s plea.
In early 2008, the Sri Lankan military intensified its efforts to capture the Madhu Church. Its artillery barrages expanded and intensified; shells began exploding around the site.
On April 2, over five thousand Tamils in government-controlled Mannar city marched in protest demanding that the Church of Madhu be declared a peace zone.
As military analysts in the Sinhala South have pointed out, there is no military value in occupying the Madhu Church and there are alternative routes into the LTTE-held North.
But ahead of the Eastern elections, scheduled for May 10, there was a clear propaganda benefit in capturing the symbolic Church – especially against the backdrop of the Army’s failure since July to progress in its multiple-front onslaught against the LTTE-held Vanni.
Apart from the rebuilt towns of Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu deep within LTTE defences, there are almost no landmark places that could be “taken” by an army to serve as for a propaganda coup - other than the Church of Our Lady of Madhu.
On April 3, a day after the last of the refugees fled from the relentless shelling, the Bishop of Mannaar, ordered the serving priests and nuns to also flee and to take with them the 400-year old Icon of our Lady of Madhu. They reached Theevanpiddi, deeper in LTTE-held Tamil territory, April 4.
600 school children from the nearby Roman catholic school of Adampan and Vaddakandan Tamil mixed school also fled to Theevanpiddi in the same time.
According to the Tamil Rehabilitation Organisation, over 12,000 internally displaced persons from the Madhu area have been relocated.
For almost two months, the Army, though a short distance from the Madhu site, had been unable to close the gap due to LTTE resistance.
Once the evacuations had been completed, the LTTE’s defensive units also pulled back.
But to the fury of the Mahinda Rajapakse government, the occupation of an empty church was rendered meaningless by the departure of the revered Icon of Our Lady.
On Sunday April 6 photographic evidence emerged of extensive damage to the Madhu complex by Army shelling, justifying the Bishop’s decision to evacuate, and illustrating the desperate efforts of the Army to capture the area.
The same day, Father Karunaratnam gave a television interview on the question of the Madhu Church, saying “The Bishop of Mannaar Diocese has clearly said that this was a peace zone. Let the GoSL not cause confusion. It is a known fact that this peace zone is situated within the LTTE territory. Ranil Wickramsinghe's government may have signed the Cease Fire Agreement in 2002, … the then President Chandrika had accepted it, as did the International Community. The [Rajapkse] Government should have respected it.”
Incidentally, the Bishop of Jaffna’s office also issued a formal plea that the Madhu Church be accepted as peace zone. It was clear that the Northeastern Church were sending a clear message of unity behind the Bishop of Mannar.
However, within two weeks, on Sunday April 20, Sri Lanka Army commandos infiltrated LTTE-held Vanni and assassinated Father Karunaratnam, near Kilinnochi. A chilling message was being sent to Father Karunaratnam’s peers and the rest of the Tamil community.
The targeted killing caused widespread grief amongst Tamils. Remembrance ceremonies and masses were held for Father Karunaratnam in the island and the Diaspora. Thousands paid homage to his remains in Kilinnochi, despite the constant threat of aerial bombing.
On April 22, over a thousand people gathered in the Cathedral of Army occupied Jaffna city for a special Mass in tribute to the slain priest.
Jaffna Bishop House Principal Priest, Rev. Justin Gnanapragasam who conducted the Holy Mass, said in his speech that People in the Jaffna peninsula, had for the first time since August 11 2006, when fighting resumed on the peninsula, assembled in large numbers at one place to participate in an event.
On April 25 the government announced its “victorious” troops had “occupied” the Madhu Church. However the announcement was submerged by the fallout of the massive debacle the Army suffered in a major offensive in southern Jaffna on April 23.
The government also declared the Church a “Security Zone” and demanded the Icon of Our Lady of Madhu be brought back. The demand was ignored by the Northeastern Church.
On April 26 three Christian priests, including two from Tamil Nadu, were arrested and held for interrogation in Colombo.
On April 27, Army Commander Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka issued a public demand that the Icon should be brought back.
A series of correspondence between the Army and the Bishop followed, along with media statements by both sides, whereby the government insisted the Madhu priests and the Icon return to its control and the Northeast Church refused.
Meanwhile, the military said it “categorically and reservedly ridicules LTTE's blatant attempts to discredit and blame [the Army for] the murder of Father Karunaratnam”
At the same time, state controlled media, began to emphasise that Father Karunaratnam, one of the Tamil country’s best known serving priests, was a staunch advocate of independence for Tamil Eelam as the only proper solution to the conflict.
Father Karunaratnam expected to be assassinated by the government. He had told his sister in Canada in their last conversation that, following the assassination of Tamil National Alliance MP Sivanesan, also by a SLA command-detonated mine, he expected to be the next victim.
Father Karunaratnam had accepted the risk of martyrdom as so many have done before him in the Church
In his last television interview before his death, he had focused on the Vatican’s policy.
"As a seat of religion, Vatican seems to observe silence, in order not to politicize it further, earnestly hoping that the GoSL will change its position. As Catholics we believe in that."
"During Communist revolutions, the communist armies destroyed Catholic churches in Russia, China and Poland. Vatican remained silent, in a spiritual way,” he said. “The Vatican is the apex body of Catholic religion, but it is also a Government. As a government they would have conveyed the necessary message to the GoSL, even if they had not publicized it."
In 2004, the Pontifical Council of Peace and Justice completed the“ Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church”. Father Karunaratnam would have considered himself guided by it.
The Social Doctrine states that a nation has a “fundamental right to existence”, to “its own language and culture, through which a people expresses and promotes ... its fundamental spiritual ‘sovereignty”', to “shape its life according to its own traditions, excluding, of course, every abuse of basic human rights and in particular the oppression of minorities”,
Para 157 states that international law “rests upon the principle of equal respect for States, for each people's right to self-determination and for their free cooperation in view of the higher common good of humanity. Peace is founded not only on respect for human rights but also on respect for the rights of peoples, in particular the right to independence.”
Para 504 states: “The right to use force for purposes of legitimate defence is associated with the duty to protect and help innocent victims who are not able to defend themselves from acts of aggression.”