Sri Lankan troubles resonate at home

  • May 1, 2008

{mosimage}TORONTO - Toronto is 14,000 kilometres from Sri Lanka, but the war between Tamils and Sinhalese on the island nation is never far away for Toronto’s 100,000-strong Tamil community.

Margaret Jegasothy found herself standing at the end of a memorial Mass April 26 to thank the community for their prayers for her brother, Fr. M.X. Karunaratnam. He was killed in a roadside bomb attack April 19.

The Saturday morning Mass was originally scheduled to be a celebration of the Toronto Tamil community establishing its own parish at St. Joseph’s Church in Leslieville. Bishop Thomas Savunaranayagam travelled from Jaffna to visit the largest Tamil community outside Sri Lanka and India and celebrate the new parish with them. In meetings with Archbishop Thomas Collins and Auxiliary Bishop Richard Grecco, Savunaranayagam also committed to provide Toronto with Tamil priests.

Savunaranayagam told The Catholic Register he does not believe Sri Lankan Army claims that it knows nothing about who killed Karunaratnam.

“Nobody claims that they have killed anyone,” said the bishop. “We do not believe the Tigers also. We do not believe unless it is proved.”

The Tamil Tigers claim the Catholic priest was killed by a Sri Lankan Army “deep penetration unit.”

Karunaratnam was heavily involved in documenting human rights abuses on all sides of the conflict — both by the Sri Lankan Army and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, a separatist guerilla army which has been fighting for an independent homeland for Tamil speakers in northeastern Sri Lanka since 1972.

Tens of thousands have died over the last 30 years. Since the army began a push in January this year it claims to have killed about 3,000 rebels while losing 175 of its own soldiers. International media are banned from northeastern Sri Lanka and the numbers cannot be verified.

The church in Sri Lanka will remain committed to documenting human rights abuses and fighting for the human rights of ordinary Sri Lankans, Savunaranayagam said.

“It’s dangerous work,” he said.

Savunaranayagam said he was also involved in human rights work, and would not back down in the face of threats.

Given that Christians (mainly Catholics with some Anglicans) constitute only six per cent of Sri Lanka’s population, it’s difficult for the church to influence Sri Lanka’s politicians, said Savundaranayagam. One advantage the church has is that it has both Tamil and Sinhalese members.

“We are sort of a bridge in this,” he said. “In this fight, you see, the church has always been for a peaceful solution. There is no need to have violence. There is no need to have a military option.”

Though the conflict is often cast as a religious war between the Sinhalese Buddhist majority and the mainly Hindu Tamil minority, Savundaranayagam insists it is really about minority cultural and language rights.

“The majority community feels that the minority community should not be given the right to live there as free citizens. They want to make us second-class citizens of this country,” he said.

Because of the importance of language and education in the history of the conflict, Savundaranayagam sees parallels with Canada’s struggle over minority language rights and the status of Quebec as a nation within the country of Canada.

“Always Canada is proposed as one of the models of federalism,” he said.

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