Some Sri Lankans see parallels to Moses leading his people through the Egyptian deserts as written in the Bible's Book of Exodus in the clerics who are accompanying those displaced by a brutal civil war in northern Sri Lanka - writes Anto Akkara.
While all aid workers including U.N. staff, on the orders of the Sri Lankan authorities, withdrew from the Vanni region which is held by Tamil rebels, the pastors decided to stay. They want to minister to their people who are seeking refuge as the government forces inch closer.
"We gave our pastors the option to move out of Vanni due to the war. But, they insisted on staying with the people," the Rev. W. P. Ebenezer Joseph, chairperson of the National Christian Council of Sri Lanka and president of the Methodist Conference, told Ecumenical News International during an interview at his office in Colombo.
Joseph pointed out that many of the pastors are taking great risks in frequently crossing over to government-controlled territory to collect money from church centres and to buy medicine and other essential items for the people.
"They could come under attack from their side when they move in the war zone on their [motor] bikes," said Joseph. He noted that six pastors belonging to his Methodist church are moving with war-displaced ethnic Tamils. The pastors serve 300 Methodist and other families in the war-ravaged area.
Most of the quarter of a million Tamils in the Vanni region have been displaced by the hostilities, with government forces already capturing several outer parts of Vanni. This is the last bastion of the rebels, called the Liberation Tigers of Talim Eelam, where they are attempting to run a parallel state.
"Eleven of our pastors are in Vanni living with our people," the Rev. S. Jeyanesan, chairperson of the Church of the American Ceylon Mission (which was formed recently following a split in the Jaffna diocese of the Church of South India) told ENI on 12 November.
Pointing out that nine of his 11 churches in Vanni have been damaged and vacated due to the conflict, Jeyanesan said the pastors had to evacuate six orphanages in the war zone and take children from them and move them to safer areas.
"Funerals are a common occurrence in Vanni today," said Jeyanesan, while giving details of his visit to the congregations in Vanni in mid-October.
The Sri Lankan government says it has killed nearly 10 000 rebels in its action to oust the LTTE from its Vanni stronghold, while civil rights groups say the casualties also include civilians killed in indiscriminate shelling and bombing.
With nearly 30 000 Roman Catholics among the people of Vanni, the larger church also decided to defy government orders and to accompany its people during harrowing times.
"Many of them are on the run and do not have a roof over their head and have to take shelter under trees," the Rev. Damian Fernando, director of Caritas Sri Lanka, a Catholic relief agency, told ENI.
More than 20 Catholic priests and as many as nuns are staying with their congregations on the move in the Vanni jungles providing spiritual and emotional support to the distressed people, Fernando said.
Church workers, especially nuns, take care of the medical needs of the people, as well as distributing relief supplies that church aid agencies such as Caritas is providing for the war victims, with special permission from government forces.
The majority of Sri Lankans (76 percent) are Buddhist and speak Sinhalese, while the Tamil residents of the northern and eastern provinces are mainly Hindu (eight percent of Sri Lanka's total population). Christians (seven percent) and Muslims (nine percent) are minority populations. "The Christian community within Sri Lanka has both Tamil and Sinhalese people coming together," says Joseph.
[With 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.]