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SRILANKA-PRIEST Aug-23-2006 (540 words) With photo. xxxi

Sri Lankan priest, companion disappear amid fighting

By Anto Akkara
Catholic News Service

NEW DELHI (CNS) -- Amid battles between Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and government forces in northern Sri Lanka, a parish priest and a person traveling with him have disappeared.

Father Thiruchelvam Nihal Jim Brown, 34, of St. Philip Neri Church in Allaipiddy off the Jaffna peninsula disappeared Aug. 20 after he and Wenceslaus Vincent Vimalan went to the church to check the premises. The church and the predominantly Catholic neighborhood -- about six miles from downtown Jaffna -- have been virtually abandoned since the church was shelled Aug. 13.

"We are very worried as there has been no trace of Father Jim and his companion so far," Father Nicolas Jacob, vicar general of Jaffna Diocese, told Catholic News Service in a telephone interview Aug. 23.

Father Jacob said Jaffna Diocese has lodged complaints with the Sri Lankan navy, army, police and the International Committee of the Red Cross about the missing priest and Vimalan.

Father M. X. Karunaratnam, chairman of the Sri Lankan church's Northeast Secretariat of Human Rights, said in an Aug. 22 statement, "This mysterious disappearance has caused serious alarm among the clergy and the parishioners."

Just one week before the priest disappeared, 15 people were killed and many more were injured when a shell allegedly fired by government forces hit St. Philip Neri Church, where hundreds of Tamil civilians and Hindus had taken shelter.

Father Brown had rushed the injured to the hospital and later shifted refugees, including 300 families, to St. Mary's Church, about five miles away.

"It is appropriate to mention here that Father Brown was appointed to Allaipiddy parish only a month ago to succeed the earlier priest who ... faced threats to his life," Father Karunaratnam added.

The earlier parish priest, Father Amal Raj, sought transfer from St. Philip Neri after the May 13 murder of a Christian family. Unidentified gunmen shot dead eight people in the house of one of richest men in the village; the man's Catholic daughter and her family also were killed. The incident occurred just hundred yards from the church.

When Father Raj rushed the injured to the hospital in his car, naval officials at a checkpoint threatened him.

"I am really scared of staying here any more. So, I have shifted to the bishop's house and have asked for a transfer," Father Raj told Catholic News Service after the incident.

Though Sri Lankan forces denied their involvement in the May 13 murders, human rights activists said the crimes were linked to the refusal of Tamil shopkeepers to obey a naval order to open their shops. Tamil rebels had called for the closure of shops to protest civilian killings.

In 1990, 85 Tamil youths were rounded up and taken away by Sri Lankan forces; the people never heard what happened.

Approximately 80,000 people have been killed and more than 1 million have been displaced since 1983, when Tamil rebels demanded autonomy for areas in northern and eastern Sri Lanka. Ethnic Tamils account for 17 percent of Sri Lanka's 19 million people, while ethnic Sinhalese account for 70 percent of the population.

Although the two sides signed a cease-fire agreement in 2002, in recent months, political killings and accusations of cease-fire violations have mounted. Violent incidents have become a daily occurrence.


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