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The NI Interview

Sri Lanka

The NI Interview
Father Emmanuel
Vanessa Baird meets a Catholic priest who practices
his Christianity under fire in the Tamil capital of Jaffna.

He’s a birdlike figure, slightly built with sparkling eyes, quick gestures and an easy smile. But don’t be fooled by the apparent physical frailty of this 62-year old cleric. His spirit is anything but frail. Father Emmanuel spells trouble both for the Sri Lankan authorities who are committing atrocities in the name of ‘ridding the country of Tamil Tiger terrorism’ and for complacent Catholic bishops who are keeping quiet about it.

This priest’s version of Christianity is pretty straightforward: ‘I think that in the Church, if you have too much security you are not a Christian.’ He wants the bishops to go to his native Jaffna and see for themselves. ‘I believe the truth liberates,’ he says simply. ‘But the bishops prefer not to go. And so the sins of destruction must be laid at the doors of these bishops’ houses.’ Clearly he is not a man to mince his words or meekly accept limp excuses. What he finds most frustrating is that he believes that the Catholic Church in Sri Lanka could act as a powerful mediating force to help end a war waged by the mainly Buddhist Sinhalese against the mainly Hindu Tamils.

In a world where the words ‘Tamil’ and ‘Tiger’ have become almost synonymous, Father Emmanuel makes an important distinction. ‘I am a Tamil but I am not a Tiger,’ he says. ‘I am a church man. A new brand of churchman.’ He refutes as Government propaganda the message that the Tamil Tigers are ‘not true representatives’ of the Tamil people.

‘They do have widespread support,’ he says. ‘They are de facto the representatives of the people, and actually give protection to Tamils.’ But, he adds: ‘As a Christian I can’t support violence. The war must stop. The Tamils want peace.’

But he is also committed to the cause of Tamil independence from Sri Lanka. For him the seeds were sown back in 1956 when, as a student in Colombo, he witnessed the first anti-Tamil riots. ‘I saw Tamil students being thrown into the lake. Thousands were killed.

‘Then in 1958 the Government passed legislation making it harder for Tamil students to get into higher education. They had to get higher marks than Sinhalese students. And they were discriminated against in employment.’

In 1977 there was another round of anti-Tamil violence. More died. Seventy per cent of Tamils voted to separate from the rest of Sri Lanka and create their own Tamil Eelam in the Northern part of the country, with Jaffna as its capital.

Father Emmanuel. Photo by VANESSA BAIRD.

‘It was a cry for survival,’ says the priest. ‘The youth took up arms in response to almost 20 years of state terrorism.’ It was then the Tamil Tigers were born.

Many who know him think that if Father Emmanuel had followed a more conventional career he would be a bishop or an archbishop by now. Instead he is the vicar general for the diocese of Jaffna. He wanted to be in Jaffna with his people. It was a time when many would have given a lot not to be there. The city was under heavy aerial bombardment, courtesy of the Sri Lankan military. It was cut off from the rest of the country the victim of a savage economic blockade. ‘There was no telephone, no electricity, no fuel, little food, no water pumps.’

While fellow academics and theologians were publishing books this priest was struggling with scraps of paper and candles. The only thing that came in ample supply were bombs. ‘The Government said it was targeting Tamil Tiger strongholds. But 99 per cent of the bombs were falling on ordinary citizens. Two of our churches were hit.’

Then in Autumn of 1995 the people of Jaffna heard that the army was about to wage a major assault. They were going to ‘liberate’ Jaffna from the Tigers, the authorities said. But when the soldiers arrived, the city’s inhabitants, 500,000 of them, fled south in a traumatic exodus. ‘The army captured an empty city,’ says Father Emmanuel. ‘They hoisted a flag and claimed victory. For two months the city was without people.’

It’s almost impossible for outsiders, including foreign journalists, to find out what is happening in Jaffna. Aid workers from the International Red Cross and Médecins Sans Frontières have had to leave after their vehicles were commandeered and the rules and curfews imposed on personnel made it impossible for them to carry out their work. Yet the stories that are, in one way or another, filtering out are hair-raising: young girls being gang raped by soldiers; bodies of children in Jaffna school uniforms being washed up along the Mullaitivu coast in gunny bags.

‘This is a war going on behind closed doors,’ says Father Emmanuel. ‘The only information getting out is from the military sources in Colombo. I come out of the area as one from the grave… and I know what is going on in this so called “war for peace”.

‘The Tamil today,’ says Father Emmanuel with graphic passion, ‘is a person in a closed, darkened room, being shelled from above, being denied food and medicine. Give him or her the basic things and he or she can talk, can negotiate peace – but not under these current conditions.’

As he is preparing to leave Father Emmanuel reveals a glimpse of trepidation. To get home he will have to go through Colombo. Sri Lanka has only one airport. ‘I fear going to Colombo,’ he says. ‘I fear they will take me for a terrorist even at my age.’ It’s another touching facet of his courage: to feel fear, look it in the face, and still do what he knows he has to.

[image, unknown]

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Copyright New Internationalist Magazine 1997

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