Prayer for Sri Lankan peace

  • February 5, 2009
{mosimage}TORONTO - After two days of protest that brought as many as 45,000 Tamils out into the streets of Toronto Jan. 30-31, the Tamils were ready to pray.

As the 26-year-old civil war in Sri Lanka enters a new and dangerous showdown, Toronto’s 100,000-plus Tamil community is in distress over the fate of civilians trapped in the fighting and a government offensive against Tamil communities they call “genocide.”
“After the tsunami (Dec. 26, 2004) most of our relatives were passed away. Now we’re losing our hopes and places that are dear to us,” said Elisia Mariyanayagam, part of a group of young Tamils who arrived early for the all-night prayer vigil Jan. 30 at St. Joseph’s Church in Toronto’s east-Riverdale neighbourhood.

The 12 hours of constant prayer were offered in solidarity with Sri Lanka’s Catholic bishops, who have joined 300 Christian and Hindu hunger strikers to demand government and rebel fighters protect civilians caught up in the ethnic conflict. Jaffna’s Bishop Thomas Savundaranayagam has written to Toronto’s huge expatriate Tamil community asking for its prayers and has appealed to both the Sri Lankan government and Tamil rebels to allow civilians to leave the battle zones.

In a Jan. 29 press release, Jaffna diocese’s justice and peace commission estimated more than 400 civilians had been killed and some 1,400 injured since mid-January.

“The vigil is a sign of hope,” said 25-year-old industrial engineer Annette Selvanayagam. “Tamil people are very resilient people. Part of that resilience is they are very religious people. When you go to bed, you’re just worried. And what brings peace of mind is to pray.”

“If we pray, it gives us strength,” said Rebecca Gnanasingam.

Both Hindu and Catholic Tamils were expected at the Jan. 30-31 vigil, just as both Hindu and Catholic young people gathered to pray at the Kandaswamy Koill Hindu temple in Richmond Hill, Ont., the weekend before. As with the protests during the day, the 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. vigil at St. Joseph’s was largely organized by Tamil youth groups.

People in the community estimate about 25 to 30 per cent of Toronto’s Tamils are Catholic, and most of the remainder Hindu. There are also Muslims and Anglicans.

Many in the Tamil community are frustrated with how little Canadians seem to know or care about the fate of Tamils in Sri Lanka. They say the Conservative government’s move to designate the Canada-based World Tamil Movement a terrorist organization in 2006 has unfairly smeared all Tamils with the terrorist label.

“A lot of people think we’re terrorists, and I want to prove we’re not,” said Gnanasingam. “What’s going on at home is horrible.”

The huge crowds lining University Avenue and Front Street in downtown Toronto, displaying signs that read “Genocide: Rwanda, Darfur, now Sri Lanka,” should not be a surprise, said Selvanayagam.

“People right now just want to act. They want peace. It’s surely not going to come from the Sri Lanka government.”

She said protesters chose to picket outside the U.S. consulate in the hope U.S. President Barack Obama might pressure the Sri Lankan government to reign in its forces.

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