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Where are Sri Lanka’s missing priests?

Killinochchi (UCAN): “We are waiting for a sincere attempt from the new government to find the culprits, reveal the truth and show accountability so as to really promote reconciliation,” Father S.V.B. Mangalarajah, the president of the Justice and Peace Commission in the diocese of Jaffna, Sri Lanka, said on May 18, as he called for answers from Sri Lankan authorities about the fate of the  priests who disappeared in suspicious circumstances during the country’s decades-long civil war.

“The local Church still seeks an answer in court and from the army about the whereabouts of the missing priests, but no information has been forthcoming,” Father Mangalarajah said at a memorial gathering for Father Manuelpillai Sarathjeevan at Our Lady of Fatima’s Church in Uruthirapuram.

Father Sarathjeevan died of a heart attack while accompanying refugees from a conflict area during the final days of the war.

The war that began in 1983 came to an official end on 18 May 2009, when the government overran the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

However, local diocesan sources say five priests disappeared and another 10 were killed during the conflict.

“What happened to our missing Sri Lankan priests, Father Jim Brown and Father Joseph Francis, who surrendered to the army?” Father Mangalarajah asked.

“Father Francis was among those leaving the war zone in May 2009 and passing through a military checkpoint where some people saw him, but he is no more today,” the priest said.

Father Mangalarajah said at the time that Father Brown was last seen on a motorcycle at a checkpoint in Allaipiddy, an area then tightly controlled by security forces (Sunday Examiner, 3 September 2006). 

“It was during a time of escalated warfare between the Sri Lankan military and the Tamil Tigers,” he explained. Thirty-four-year-old Father Brown had offered his church as a sanctuary to civilians who were being subjected to intense shelling in the area.

Other priests who disappeared during the war include Father Mary Bastian, who went missing in 1985; as well as Jesuit Father Herbiet, from the United States of America; and Father Selvarajah, who both disappeared in 1990.

According to civic rights advocates, many paramilitary groups, as well as government security forces and the Tamil Tigers, are responsible for the enforced disappearances that occurred during the conflict.

The United Nations (UN) Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances says that Sri Lanka ranks second only to Iraq when it comes to wartime disappearances.

According to the UN the war claimed the lives of at least 40,000 civilians in its final days alone.

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