By D.B.S. Jeyaraj
Members of the Catholic faith in Jaffna were greatly agitated last week when it became known that the Diocesan hierarchy was actively considering the recalling of priests from parishes in problematic, insecure areas. If the decision was implemented Catholic priests from the Northern Islands, Vadamaratchy East and some parts of Thenmaratchy would have left their churches and taken up residence temporarily at Colombothurai in Jaffna. The “shepherds” would have been absent when their respective “flocks” were undergoing great harship and fear.
Fr. Thiruchelvam Nihal Jim Brown
Naturally the Catholic laity of those areas were agitated and upset. So too were other parishioners in other areas of Jaffna. There was much anguish and tears. “Do not desert us at our time of peril and need” many sobbed and wailed. Emotional appeals were made to Jaffna Caholic Bishop Rt. Rev Dr.Thomas Soundranayagam. The prelate took the feelings of his flock into consideration and changed his mind. The endangered flocks got their shepherds back.
What made Bishop Soundranayagam contemplate such a drastic measure in the first place? It was out of a sense of concern and anxiety over the safety of Catholic clergymen in Jaffna. Given the uncertain and unsafe conditions prevalent in Jaffna the Bishop felt that his priests should not be exposed to danger unnecessarily. He was particularly worried about the younger priests and those in charge of churches facing insecurity and security force related problems in unsafe areas.
The reason for Bishop Soundranayagam to have even thought of this was due perhaps to an emotional upheaval. He had been deeply troubled and saddened by what had apparently befallen a young priest in his Diocese, 34 year old Fr. Thiruchelvam Nihal Jim Brown.
He had been presumably named Jim Brown by his devout parents after a well known missionary priest who served in Jaffna during the fifties and sixties. The senior Fr. Jim Brown was the livewire behind the Catholic press of Jaffna and the Diocesan flagship journal “Sathiya Vetha Paathukaavalan”. The young Tamil priest was named so in his honour.
Rev. Fr. Jim Brown the parish priest of Allaipiddy in Jaffna had gone “missing” from Sunday Aug 20th. Another lay social worker accompanying him had also gone missing. The Navy stationed in Allaipiddy were suspected of being responsible. But there was no concrete proof. Despite much effort to trace Fr. Jim Brown’s whereabouts there was no success. The incident had upset and saddened the Catholic clergy and laity in Jaffna.
Bishop Soundranayagam was particularly concerned as the young priest grew up in his Diocess and entered priesthood under his benign guidance. He was an active worker with a keen social conscience. According to Church circles Fr. Jim Brown was almost a protegee of the Bishop.He felt the “loss” keenly.
An adoration service was held at St. Johns Church Jaffna on Aug 24th to pray to God for Fr. Jim Brown and the layman Wenceslaus Vimaladhas. Bishop Soundranayagam participated and shared his thoughts and experiences about Fr. Jim Brown. The Bishop had met the priest on Saturday Aug 19th. In a very long conversation the priest had told his superior about what had happened in Allaipiddy the week before when the LTTE has launched an operation in the area and how more than 850 members of his parish were displaced.
When the Bishop had asked the priest to stay on in Jaffna at the Bishops House the latter had replied that he needed to go back to supply drinking water to the displaced people. “Lord, my people are waiting for drinking water, I’ll deliver these water bottles and then I’ll come back” he had said. As the Bishop continued he observed “When his parents come and ask me, – Lord we gave our son to you to serve God, and where is he now? – how could I answer them”.
An emotionally upset Bishop could not speak further at this point. He was silent for a while and then recovering continued with his address. This _expression of personal trauma may help explain the Bishop’s mindset in opting to recall priests serving under dangerous conditions.
Rev. Fr.Jim Brown born in 1972 had studied for the priesthood at St. Xaviers Seminary and was fully ordained as a priest in 2004. He served his Obedience period in a Mannar Church. He was appointed to the St. Philips Neri’s Church in Allaipiddy only a few months ago. It was a very “difficult” parish to serve due the prevalent security situation. Allaipiddy has been very much in the eye of a storm in recent times.
On May 13th four men went on a shooting spree in Allaipiddy. Nine people including a four year old child and four month infant were butchered in cold blood. The Navy and Eelam Peoples Democratic Party (EPDP) were implicated. Terrified civiians from the predominantly Catholic locality took refuge at Philip Neri’s church. It was the then parish priest Fr. Amalaraj who first went with villagers to the house where residents had been shot to death.
Thereafter the panic stricken people fled from Allaipiddy. Some went to Kilinochchi. Others took refuge in two churches in Jaffna town and Navanthurai. After a while the people returned with security guarantees being given. Fr. Amalaraj played a constructive role in giving leadership to the fear stricken community at its time of need.
Fr. Amalraj came under threat due to this. EPDP controlled and financed media organs and websites began accusing Fr. Amalraj of being a tiger sympathiser. Several threats were issued. Security personnel in the area were hostile. Fearing for Fr. Amalraj’s life the Church transferred him out of Allaipiddy to Poonagary. Fr. Jim Brown was posted to Allaipiddy. It was a courageous move by Fr. Brown to go to Allaipiddy under such circumstances. It was in the finest Christian tradition of “Here I am; Send me O Lord “.
The new priest with his youthful looks and bubbly charm became a popular priest in a very short time. The parishioners clung to him as people drowning would desperately hang on to a lifeline. Fr. Jim Brown’s great challenge came on Aug 12th this year when the LTTE landed in Mandaitheevu and fought its way up Allaipddy, Mankumban etc.As fighting ensued frightened residents of Allaipiddy converged at the Philip Neri’s Church. Fr. Jim Brown was a tower of strength.
In the early hours of the morning on Aug 13th the Army camps in Jaffna town began using multi – barrel rocket launchers to fire on Allaipiddy – Mandaitheevu areas to dispel the tigers. Both Mandaitheevu and Allaipiddy are situated along the Pannai causeway and are only a short distance away from Jaffna town. Some of the shells fell in the vicinity of Philip Neri’s church and on the church itself. The church was damaged. Tragically 16 people taking refuge inside and 4 outside the church were killed. 54 people were injured.
Fr. Jim Brown endeared himself to his parishioners by giving leadership at a critical juncture. After the artillery firing subsided he gathered the people and marched towards the security barriers pleading that they be allowed to go elsewhere for safety reasons. The Navy and Army refused wanting perhaps to keep the people there as “human shields”. But Fr. Jim Brown’s persistent pleas made the authorities relent. Permission was given to go to Oorkavalthurai or Kayts.
Thereafter with the help of Catholic priests from Kayts vehicles were brought and more than 850 Allaipiddy parishioners were transported and housed at St. Mary’s Church. Some of the injured were treated at the Kayts hospital. But Fr. Brown did not rest. With the security authorities refusing to let the badly injured be taken to Jaffna for treatment Fr. Brown managed to go to Jaffna himself.
He informed Jaffna addl magistrate Srinidhy Nandasekeran of the serious situation and requested her urgent assistance. She promptly obliged. Due to Ms. Nandaseleran’s intervention the transport restrictions were lifted. Fr. Brown accompanied the Magistrate and went along with a convoy of ambulances and vehicles to transport the injured to Jaffna Hospital. Thereafter Fr. Brown shuttled between Allaipiddy, Kayts and Jaffna tending to his dispersed and dejected parish tirelessly.
After providing food and water to the displaced parishioners for two days Fr. Jim Brown along with Fr. James of Kayts came to Jaffna .They obtained the aid of “Caritas” to cater to the needs of the displaced. Many had fled with only the clothes they were wearing. Fr. Brown persuaded the authorities to allow provisions in bulk to be taken to Kayts. He also obtained permission for the people to return to Allaipiddy and take away clothes and essential items.
Signs of positive leadership among the beleaguered Tamil community is frowned upon by the powers that be. Besides Christian priests have been regarded suspiciously as being sympathetic towards the LTTE. As in the case of his predecessor Fr. Amalaraj , several threats were made to Fr Jim Brown too.One accusation levelled against him by the local chief of Navy at Allaipiddy was that he along with other civilians had helped dig bunkers for the LTTE. The priest politely denied these charges and went about with his work fearing only God in heaven and no man on earth.
It was on Saturday Aug 19th that he met his Lord Bishop and related all what befell Allaipiddy. He declined an invitation to stay on at Bishops House saying he had to take drinking water to the displaced parishioners at Allaipiddy.Thereafter Fr. Jim Brown returned to Kayts.
On the following Sunday Aug 20th Fr. Jim Brown assisted in morning mass at Kayts. He then left Kayts at about 12. 30 pm on a red coloured motor cycle NPGO 6486 with a lay social worker riding on the pillion. Fr. Jim Brown’s ill – fated companion was 40 year old Wenceslaus Vimalathas known generally as Vimalan. When Fr. Jim Brown wanted to go to Mandaitheevu he was refused permission by the naval personnel. He then proceeded to Jaffna town to make some quick and urgent telephone calls.
Both then returned and obtained permission to enter Allaipiddy again. Particulars of his “entry” at the Allaipiddy road junction security post was duly recorded at 1. 50 pm. There was also another priest who witnessed this. This was Fr. Peter Thurairatnam of the Naranthanai parish. This was the last time any known person had seen Fr. Jim Brown and Vimalan.Thereafter they simply “disappeared”.
Priests and parishioners became worried at their absence and alerted Church leaderss. The Kayts Police were also informed. Since they had been last seen at Allaipiddy junction inquiries were directed there first. Church authorities as well as the Police were informed that Fr. Jim Brown and his vehicle had been registered “in” at Allaipiddy at 1. 50 pm. They were then registered “out” at the same post at 2. 10 pm. When the Police wanted to chek the records the navy refused to show the particulars.
Inquiries made at all Catholic Churches in the Peninsula failed to reveal any information about the missing priest and pillion rider. It was feared that they had been arrested by the Navy at Allaipiddy. Bishop Soundranayagam contacted Rear Admiral Upali Ranaweera ,Northern region Commander of the Navy.Ranaweera who denied that the two men were arrested and reiterated the navy version that both had left through the Allaipiddy checkpost for Jaffna. 72 hours after they went “missing” it became apparent that both had “disappeared”.
A much worried Jaffna diocesan hierarchy made representations to a wide section of people ranging from the UN Secretary – General in New York to the Papal Nuncio in Colombo. The Human Rights Commission, ICRC,Kayts magistrate, 51st Brigade commander etc have all been notified. The Amnesty International issued a statement. Catholic clergy and laity in Mannar and Kilinochchi staged hunger fasts, silent processions etc and submitted petitions to local and international officials. Church sevices were held widely entreating the almighty.
On Aug 29th Catholic people converged at the Our Lady of Refuge Church on 4th cross street , Jaffna and proceeded to the Cathedral in procession carrying placards with Fr. Jim Brown’s picture. As they reached the water tank checkpost on main street they were stopped by the army who refused to let them citing emergency regulations. No amount of pleading by priests made them relent. Thereafter the people turned back.
Ever since the arrests of Fr, Singarayer and Fr. Sinnarasa in 1982 on charges of maintaining links to the tigers there has been a general suspicion that Tamil Catholic priests are closet supporters of the LTTE. Veteran cartoonist Wijesoma drew a memorable caricature then of a tiger tail jutting out from under the cassock of a priest. The fact that both Singarayar and Sinnarasa were discharged by the courts years later is not remembered. Many Catholic priests were treated with suspicion and constantly harassed.In one instance two priests taking some barbed wire to Jaffna from Colombo were detained.
Some priests paid the supreme price. Fr. Mary Bastian from Vankalai went missing in 1985 with some others. They were never found. A few days later Rev Jeyarajasingham a methodist priest and his wife were found burnt to death in their vehicle at Murunkan.An American Jesuit priest in Batticaloa Fr. Herbiet went missing while travelling through Eravur in 1990. Another priest. Fr. Selvarajah went missing in Sorikalmunai in Amparai district the same year. Fr. Wenceslaus at Tholagatty monastery was killed in 1986 by security forces. Fr. Chandra Fernando of Batticaloa was shot dead in 1988 by EPRLF/ENDLF assassins.
Another Christian priest had also gone missing in Jaffna some days before Fr. Jim Brown’s disappearance.Rev. Vincent Vinodharajah, a priest of the Evangelical Church of the Apostle has been reported missing since Aug 11th. The 35 year old father of one child had left home at Ellaitheru in Meesalai on Aug 11th. It is suspected that he too has “disappeared” and been killed.
There are many recent instances of Catholics in the North – East suffering at the hands of security forces or their henchmen. Civilian Catholics have been killed in places like Vankalai, Allaipiddy and Pesalai.. In Pesalai members of the armed forces fired at and threw grenades at cowering refugees inside a Church. In Batticaloa state – backed gunmen shot Tamil Parliamentarian Joseph Pararajasingham during Christmas mass at the St. Mary’s Cathedral at the time of holy communion in the presence of Bishop Kingsley Swampillai. Now a young Catholic priest has “disappeared” and the security forces are prime suspects.
Even as Tamil Catholics are deeply disturbed at these developments there seems to be practically no concern evinced by Sinhala Catholic clergy or laity. Even though Sinhala and Tamil Catholics subscribe to the “one, Holy Catholic Church” the ethnic divide has torn even the Church asunder. Regretfully the chasm has grown wider after Rt. Rev Oswald Gomis became Colombo Arch Bishop.
After Bishop Malcolm Ranjith went abroad there has been no Sinhala Catholic Bishop reaching out to the North – Eastern flock. Sadly not one word of empathy has come out publicly from the Catholic South about the plight of their Northern brethren. Getting Mahinda Rajapakse to ban “Da Vinci Code” is deemed more important than trying to repair a fractured Church.
Even as Tamil Christians struggle to cope with their troubles and sorrow they must also remember that they are being victimised not as Christians but as Tamils. In their suffering Christian Tamils are one with their Hindu brethren. By their indifference and lack of concern Sinhala Catholics are demonstrating that they are more “Sinhala” than “Catholic”. Mirror images are flourishing among Tamil Catholics too. Even Our Lady of Madhu seems unable or unwilling to check this growing separateness.
Meanwhile Tamil Catholics will continue to mourn for Fr. Jim Brown as they have done for others before. His disappearance cannot be treated as an isolated incident. It is part of the on going state terror campaign to crush and stifle any sign of Tamil dissidence and defiance. Catholic Priests provide great leadership to their parishioners at times of trouble and distress. Killing them or making them “disappear” intimidates and demoralises the people. The “disappearance” of Rev Fr. Jim Brown can only be viewed from that perspective.
DBS Jeyaraj can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org