Violence against Tamils in Sri Lanka has caught up Catholic priests working there. Jonathan Petre discovers their plight.
THE OUTBURST ot violence that engulfed the island of Sri Lanka last month has again highlighted the appalling plight of Catholic priests working in the area.
The eye-witness accounts of a horrific attack on a group of prisoners, including two priests, by anti-Tamil .prisoners being held in the same gaol, represents only the tip of the iceberg of anti-Catholic feeling in the country.
Since the end of last year the government has waged a campaign against priests working in the north and cast of the island with Tamil refugees who fled to these areas to escape previous pogroms in 1977 and 1981.
Although the government has produced no evidence to counteract the claims of the priests that they are merely carrying out their humanitarian duty to aid the refugees, it has nevertheless deliberately set out to harass the missionaries in their work, even to the point of arresting them and holding them without trial under the infamous Prevention of Terrorism Act.
The government has repeatedly claimed that many of the priests, if not themselves subversives, are knowingly harbouring members of militant pro-Tamil guerrilla groups which have been demanding an independent Tamil state in the north.
It was one of these groups, called the Tamil Tigers, that was behind the attack on an army lorry, sparking off the recent wave of anti-Tamil feeling and resulted in the worst violence for a quarter of a century.
The case of Frs Singarayer and Sinnarasa, both of whom have been held virtually incommunicado in various gaols in the north and in the capital city of Colombo, is a particularly brutal illustration of the government's methods in their crackdown on the Tamil independence movement. Sporadic attacks by Tamils on police and army troops in recent years led to the introduction in October, 1982, of the Prevention of Terrorism Act which has been compared to similar laws in South Africa.
It was under the emergency powers granted by this act that, on November 13, 1982, troops arrested six Catholic priests, one Anglican priest and one Methodist priest working in the north of the island, Four laymen were also arrested in another raid.
By the end of the month the government had arrested at least 60 people under this act, which allowed prisoners to be held without trial for 18 months. Bishop Jacob Bastiampillai Deoguillai of Jaffna immediately wrote a letter to President Jayewardene complaining about the treatment of the priests, saying they were "taken into custody like common criminals by the Security Forces in the North in spite of my offer to produce them for interrogation if and when needed.
"Two of the priests taken into custody are still being held by the Security Forces and are being subjected to moral pressure, intimidation and other questionable methods to extract confessions from them," the letter continued.
Widespread protests in the north and east followed the arrests, and there was a call by a section of the Catholic Church to designate December as a "Black Christmas". One leaflet sent out asked Tamil-Christians to refrain from sending greeting cards or holding firework displays over Christmas.
On December 10 a group of religious organisations decided to hold a protest fast in the town of Vavuniya, which was to start in a Catholic church. By 9.45 am when about 1,000 people had gathered in the church, police who had been trying to disband the protesters suddenly attacked the church with tear gas and batons. Police made seven arrests, and several people had to be treated in hospital for serious injuries.
Meanwhile, one of the priest, Fr Singarayer was allowed to meet his lawyer. He said he had been tortured and humiliated by police guards trying to compel him to make a confession. The method police employed was to prevent him from sleeping and constantly abusing him with obscene language, which he found acutely embarrassing.
On January 17, 1983, police filed charges alleging that the two priests had not informed them about persons who had committed offences under the Prevention of Terrorism Act. The priests denied the charges.
It also emerged that Fr Singarayer had undergone more torture, including being stripped, beaten and threatened with a revolver. He was further forced to sign a 64-page statement to his alleged crimes.
On May 3, having failed in thgir efforts to obtain hail for the priests, fifty five priests of Mannar and Jaffna dioceses wrote to the Bishops' Conference appealing for a statement. The Bishops responded by calling on the government for a "fair trial".
Months after that call was made there has still been no trial, nor does one seem in prospect. The priests, however, since they were moved from the army prison in the north to Welikade prison in Colombo, have been subjected to 'further violence, both from their guards and from anti-Tamil prisoners in a neighbouring compound of the gaol (described in the Catholic Herald, August 19.) Only recently Pope John Paul personally accepted documents relating to the continued detention and torture of the two priests, and the question of human rights in Sri Lanka under the Prevention of Terrorism Act.
But with the country still recovering from the shockwaves of the recent violence, and the possibility of a recurrence, the future seems as uncertain as ever.