A Sri Lankan priest who is living in self-imposed exile and campaigning for peace and justice in his homeland visited Brisbane recently to plead on behalf of his people. PAUL DOBBYN reports
EMINENT Tamil theologian and academic Father S.J. Emmanuel can count five bishops among those he has educated in his distinguished career – but he is much prouder of five special priests who attended his lectures in Kandy, Sri Lanka.
President of the Global Tamil Forum, Fr Emmanuel once told the State Department in Washington that he was “father” to these priests.
The five were among 10 priests killed in the final bloody battle between Government and rebel forces in Sri Lanka’s north in May 2009.
Once called the “Archbishop Tutu” of the Tamil struggle by United States human rights activist Reverend Jesse Jackson, the 77-year-old priest was recently in Brisbane to spread the message that his people are suffering widespread human-rights abuses in the aftermath of the country’s 30-year civil war.
Fr Emmanuel can also count Cardinal George Pell and then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) as classmates and associates.
Fr Emmanuel and Cardinal Pell were ordained as priests at St Peter’s Basilica in 1966.
For the past 14 years he’s been in exile and he is Vicarius Co-operator in St Nikolaus’ parish, Darfeld, in Munster diocese, Germany.
In his interview with The Catholic Leader while visiting Brisbane in February, Fr Emmanuel explained the reasons for his self-imposed exile.
The priest of 44 years told of narrowly escaping death on at least one occasion before being forced out, along with about 500,000 other Tamils from civil war-torn Sri Lanka.
“From 1986 onwards I lived through the ethnic conflict and war in Jaffna in the country’s north,” Fr Emmanuel said.
“The first part of this war I spent in the city with no electricity, telephone, postage or fuel.
“I was ten years rector and lecturer at St Francis Xavier’s Major Seminary in Jaffna.
“During this time, the Government imposed an economic embargo on the region and we lived on dried fish and rice for years.”
Of far more concern was the constant threat of aerial bombardment.
“We were always looking up – hearing helicopter gunships overhead,” Fr Emmanuel said.
“One day in 1995 I was nearly finished off when a bomb was dropped outside Francis Xavier Seminary.
“It was a very close call … there was a hole in the bedroom wall above my bed where I had been sleeping.”
Finally in 1995 on October 30, Fr Emmanuel and about 500,000 inhabitants of Jaffna Peninsula were forced out by the military and all headed south, crossing Kilali Lagoon and finding refuge in the jungles of the Wanni region.
Thus had begun the great Tamil Diaspora – but far worse was to come for those who remained.
Born in Jaffna in 1934, Fr Emmanuel had his early education there, later graduating in physical sciences at the University of Ceylon, Colombo in 1958.
After a short period as teacher and journalist, he did his studies for priesthood in Rome, graduating in philosophy and theology at the Pontifical Urban University in Rome and was ordained in 1966.
In Sri Lanka, he was pastor and diocesan director for lay apostolate.
During his second sojourn in Rome (1973-76), he researched lay ministries and obtained a doctorate in theology.
From 1976 till 1986, he was Professor and Dean of theology at the National Seminary in Kandy, Sri Lanka.
Other roles included eight years as a member of the first Theological Advisory Committee of the Federation of Asian Bishops Conferences (FABC).
Books he has written on the plight of the Tamil people include Let My People Go which has been translated into English, French, German and Tamil.
Fr Emmanuel said he had been radicalised by his experiences in Sri Lanka.
“Coming into touch with people’s suffering started me thinking from grassroots upwards,” he said.
The Tamil priest’s social activism moved into overdrive with the events of May 2009.
“Something horrific happened in Sri Lanka’s north then,” he said.
“With international support, some 40,000 people were massacred by shelling and bombing and chemical weapons.
“Many died including priests – even recently I met a priest in Rome who had lost a leg in this action.
“For a long period some 300,000 Tamil people were incarcerated in concentration camps.
“The 11,000 LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam) who surrendered are still kept in camps … It should be remembered the Tamil people took up arms against state terrorism only after 30 years of suffering.
“The West is allowing much of this to continue happening behind closed doors.”
As head of the Global Tamil Forum, which met in London for the first time in February last year, Fr Emmanuel is determined not to permit this situation to continue.
His speaking tour of Brisbane and other parts of Australia is part of a campaign to focus awareness on the situation of his people.
In his interview, he spoke of the Singhalese government’s campaign of oppression and what he described as a policy of “state-aided colonisation”.
“The whole area in Sri Lanka’s north is heavily militarised with frequent army checkpoints,” he said.
“There are upwards of 40,000 military personnel in the region and housing is being built for military families so there will be a permanent armed presence.
“The Government is also settling Singhalese people from the south into Tamil areas.
“Numbers of Buddhist temples are being built in the north and east in an area which, being mainly populated by Tamils, is mainly Hindu.
“Street signs are being changed to the Singhalese language.
“The Government is hellbent on creating a single Buddhist Singhalese culture on the island – naturally all hope for peace and reconciliation is shattered by these moves.”
Fr Emmanuel said there were no signs of reconciliation occurring in Sri Lanka since the final battle between Government troops and the rebels in 2009
“People who speak out against the current injustice – journalists especially – are disappearing,” he said.
“Living in Jaffna means living in fear.
“And this is not only the case in Jaffna but the middle part of Sri Lanka where the camps were established.
“People – including children and the elderly – were released to be left under trees and are still no closer to having houses after seven months.
“Organisations such as the ICRC (International Committee of the Red Cross) are not being allowed to visit the 11,000 Tamils still detained.
“And Tamils abroad are always concerned if they speak up in the outside world that authorities will take revenge on their relatives living in Sri Lanka.”
Fr Emmanuel said Catholics were in a unique position in Sri Lanka.
“The majority of Tamils are Hindu while the Singhalese are Buddhist.
“However, Catholics come from both ethnic groups, so potentially have a strategic role to play in communication between both sides.”
But, the situation is complex.
Catholics, at only seven per cent of the population, are very much in a minority, although Fr Emmanuel said this was no excuse for not speaking the truth.
He accused Sri Lankan Catholics and bishops of “failing to exercise their prophetic voice”.
“The international community and Australia in particular also have an obligation to find out the truth,” he said.
“If we rely on the news being dished out by Sri Lankan embassy we won’t find out.
“I’d like Australian Government officials to be allowed to move around freely to find out the truth and not just go on guided tours organised by the Sri Lankan Government.
“I especially appeal to Catholics in Australia to find out the truth and demand justice for the Tamil people.
“We can’t go on like this … we must find a way to reconciliation and peace through accountability, truth, justice in Sri Lanka.”