Growing Tamil refugee crisis disrupts Sri Lanka celebrations

By staff writers
January 9, 2007

Almost all the churches in Batticaloa in eastern Sri Lanka shunned Christmas celebrations due to a refugee crisis in their war-stricken region – writes Anto Akkara of ENI.

"This Christmas was no occasion of celebration for us," said the Rev A. Jesudasan, pastor in charge of the Methodist church at Chenkalady in Batticaloa.

Thousands of ethnic Tamil refugees had poured into Batticaloa from the rebel held Vahari region, Jesudasan told Ecumenical News International on 5 January 2005. "Christians could not be insensitive to the refugees," he said. "So, we did not have even any decorations."

The United Methodist Committee on Relief has been doing tsunami-related relief work in the Batticaloa area, in cooperation with the Methodist Church in Sri Lanka.

Batticaloa's unprecedented refugee crisis began before Christmas with nearly 25,000 Tamils fleeing intense shelling by government forces trying to take control of the Vaharai region held by Tamil rebels known as LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam).

Jesudasan said that those who dared to attend the midnight Christmas service had to face "special fireworks," as he referred to actions from the army. Many churchgoers, said the Methodist pastor, had to run for their lives during the simultaneous firing of shells and rockets from the army camps dotting Batticaloa town, even as the Christmas service ended.

Christians account for nearly 20 percent of the population in Batticaloa.

As a mark of concern for the refugees camping in churches, schools and open grounds around Batticaloa, on 22 December 2006, the entire Methodist parish of 70 families pooled their savings for Christmas celebrations and prepared food-packets for 1,200 displaced people.

When the ENI correspondent traveled to the Roman Catholic St Teresa's church Valachenai, 24 miles from Batticaloa, he found hundreds of new refugee families in the grounds of the Ceylon Pentecostal church.

The Rev J. Alagudari of St Teresa's said over-stretched church institutions were the first port of call for soldiers to dump civilians fleeing fighting in the rebel areas.

One woman, in a camp at the Sri Murugan high school run by the Jaffna diocese of the Church of South India, said she had been on the run for five months since government forces launched attacks to evict the Tamil Tigers from bases in the east.

"We decided to get out [from the rebel area] after our shelter was hit," said the mother, who gave her name as S. Shanta. She still has shrapnel embedded in her body although doctors had removed another piece when she was hit by shelling while on the run in September.

Shanta said many of the refugees had trekked up to 60 miles for days through jungles, sometimes wading through neck-high water to cross over to the government-held territory. Her son was injured in the attack while they were fleeing, and is with her, but there is no trace of her husband, who got separated from them during their escape.

[With grateful acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, and the Conference of European Churches]

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