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GTF President Fr. Emmanuel wants peace, truth and justice in Sri Lanka

by Paul Dobbyn

EMINENT Tamil theologian and academic Father S.J. Emmanuel can count five bishops among those he has educated in his distinguished career - but he is much prouder of five special priests who attended his lectures in Kandy, Sri Lanka.


Father S.J. Emmanuel

President of the Global Tamil Forum, Fr Emmanuel once told the State Department in Washington that he was "father" to these priests.

The five were among 10 priests killed in the final bloody battle between Government and rebel forces in Sri Lanka's north in May 2009.

Once called the "Archbishop Tutu" of the Tamil struggle by United States human rights activist Reverend Jesse Jackson, the 77-year-old priest was recently in Brisbane to spread the message that his people are suffering widespread human-rights abuses in the aftermath of the country's 30-year civil war.

Fr Emmanuel can also count Cardinal George Pell and then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) as classmates and associates.

Fr Emmanuel and Cardinal Pell were ordained as priests at St Peter's Basilica in 1966.

For the past 14 years he's been in exile and he is Vicarius Co-operator in St Nikolaus' parish, Darfeld, in Munster diocese, Germany.

In his interview with The Catholic Leader while visiting Brisbane in February, Fr Emmanuel explained the reasons for his self-imposed exile.

The priest of 44 years told of narrowly escaping death on at least one occasion before being forced out, along with about 500,000 other Tamils from civil war-torn Sri Lanka.

"From 1986 onwards I lived through the ethnic conflict and war in Jaffna in the country's north," Fr Emmanuel said.

"The first part of this war I spent in the city with no electricity, telephone, postage or fuel.

"I was ten years rector and lecturer at St Francis Xavier's Major Seminary in Jaffna.

"During this time, the Government imposed an economic embargo on the region and we lived on dried fish and rice for years."

Of far more concern was the constant threat of aerial bombardment.

"We were always looking up - hearing helicopter gunships overhead," Fr Emmanuel said.

"One day in 1995 I was nearly finished off when a bomb was dropped outside Francis Xavier Seminary.

"It was a very close call ... there was a hole in the bedroom wall above my bed where I had been sleeping."

Finally in 1995 on October 30, Fr Emmanuel and about 500,000 inhabitants of Jaffna Peninsula were forced out by the military and all headed south, crossing Kilali Lagoon and finding refuge in the jungles of the Wanni region.

Thus had begun the great Tamil Diaspora - but far worse was to come for those who remained.

Born in Jaffna in 1934, Fr Emmanuel had his early education there, later graduating in physical sciences at the University of Ceylon, Colombo in 1958.

After a short period as teacher and journalist, he did his studies for priesthood in Rome, graduating in philosophy and theology at the Pontifical Urban University in Rome and was ordained in 1966.

In Sri Lanka, he was pastor and diocesan director for lay apostolate.

During his second sojourn in Rome (1973-76), he researched lay ministries and obtained a doctorate in theology.

From 1976 till 1986, he was Professor and Dean of theology at the National Seminary in Kandy, Sri Lanka.

Other roles included eight years as a member of the first Theological Advisory Committee of the Federation of Asian Bishops Conferences (FABC).

Books he has written on the plight of the Tamil people include Let My People Go which has been translated into English, French, German and Tamil.

Fr Emmanuel said he had been radicalised by his experiences in Sri Lanka.

"Coming into touch with people's suffering started me thinking from grassroots upwards," he said.

The Tamil priest's social activism moved into overdrive with the events of May 2009.

"Something horrific happened in Sri Lanka's north then," he said.

"With international support, some 40,000 people were massacred by shelling and bombing and chemical weapons.

"Many died including priests - even recently I met a priest in Rome who had lost a leg in this action.

"For a long period some 300,000 Tamil people were incarcerated in concentration camps.

"The 11,000 LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam) who surrendered are still kept in camps ... It should be remembered the Tamil people took up arms against state terrorism only after 30 years of suffering.

"The West is allowing much of this to continue happening behind closed doors."

As head of the Global Tamil Forum, which met in London for the first time in February last year, Fr Emmanuel is determined not to permit this situation to continue.

His speaking tour of Brisbane and other parts of Australia is part of a campaign to focus awareness on the situation of his people.

In his interview, he spoke of the Singhalese government's campaign of oppression and what he described as a policy of "state-aided colonisation".

"The whole area in Sri Lanka's north is heavily militarised with frequent army checkpoints," he said.

"There are upwards of 40,000 military personnel in the region and housing is being built for military families so there will be a permanent armed presence.

"The Government is also settling Singhalese people from the south into Tamil areas.

"Numbers of Buddhist temples are being built in the north and east in an area which, being mainly populated by Tamils, is mainly Hindu.

"Street signs are being changed to the Singhalese language.

"The Government is hellbent on creating a single Buddhist Singhalese culture on the island - naturally all hope for peace and reconciliation is shattered by these moves."

Fr Emmanuel said there were no signs of reconciliation occurring in Sri Lanka since the final battle between Government troops and the rebels in 2009

"People who speak out against the current injustice - journalists especially - are disappearing," he said.

"Living in Jaffna means living in fear.

"And this is not only the case in Jaffna but the middle part of Sri Lanka where the camps were established.

"People - including children and the elderly - were released to be left under trees and are still no closer to having houses after seven months.

"Organisations such as the ICRC (International Committee of the Red Cross) are not being allowed to visit the 11,000 Tamils still detained.

"And Tamils abroad are always concerned if they speak up in the outside world that authorities will take revenge on their relatives living in Sri Lanka."

Fr Emmanuel said Catholics were in a unique position in Sri Lanka.

"The majority of Tamils are Hindu while the Singhalese are Buddhist.

"However, Catholics come from both ethnic groups, so potentially have a strategic role to play in communication between both sides."

But, the situation is complex.

Catholics, at only seven per cent of the population, are very much in a minority, although Fr Emmanuel said this was no excuse for not speaking the truth.

He accused Sri Lankan Catholics and bishops of "failing to exercise their prophetic voice".

"The international community and Australia in particular also have an obligation to find out the truth," he said.

"If we rely on the news being dished out by Sri Lankan embassy we won't find out.

"I'd like Australian Government officials to be allowed to move around freely to find out the truth and not just go on guided tours organised by the Sri Lankan Government.

"I especially appeal to Catholics in Australia to find out the truth and demand justice for the Tamil people.

"We can't go on like this ... we must find a way to reconciliation and peace through accountability, truth, justice in Sri Lanka." ~ courtesy: Catholic Leader ~


The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

Such is the power of the Lordd who preserves and protects people for the service of the those destitute, those in need of help, those abandoned and tyranised.

Posted by: SriLankan | April 19, 2011 08:22 AM

Stoking the fires of hatred and seperatism, espousing terrorism and justifying the acts of the LTTE, that's where.

and NOW he wants "peace, truth and reconciliation" ????

Posted by: Anonymous | April 19, 2011 10:45 AM

In fact these kind of religious people are the problem in both communities.
I can only hope Fr SJ means what he says in this interview

Posted by: Anonymous | April 19, 2011 10:53 AM

Certainly some members of the catholic priesthood supported many illegal activities which were rumoured to include transporting and storing arms, smuggling cadres and intelligence gathering behind the protection of the cloth.

I am not a christian, but I understand Jesus' central message to be 'Love all.' I think rather too many catholic priests from Sri Lanka have translated this message to be 'Love only tamils'.

Posted by: Saj | April 19, 2011 05:43 PM

Pity this writer does not know that there are more Tamils and Hindu temples in the South among Sinhalese than all the Tamils and temples of the North and East put together. Whether LTTE rump like it or not, Buddhist temples will be in the North and East in the future just as it had been there for the last 2500 years.

Posted by: Leela | April 19, 2011 07:53 PM

please be good enogh to point out how the tamils are discriminated and exploited by the tamils.the best example is tamil nadu.ranjit demel berlin

Posted by: ranjit demel | April 19, 2011 09:19 PM

we all make mistakes.Both Tamils and Singhalese made mistakes. Now, time has come to make them correct and work for the prosperity of the mother land.

People remember one thing.. stay away from priests form every religion. They are evil. Buddhist destroyed this country.. Now Catholic priest are doing. As long as we live with religions in our head we will be a third world country forever. Look at developed nations.Learn good things from them. I live in Australia. Not to mention that Australia is a true multicultural country. I know that Australians are not religious. But They are very generous. When compared with other countries Australia is a heaven.

Posted by: asanka | April 19, 2011 11:27 PM

How about those thousands of Singhalese and Muslim people who were tortured and killed in cold blood by the terrorists? How about those men women and children who were killed by those numerous suicide bombs that were planted by the terrorists throughout the country?

Posted by: Nadesan | April 19, 2011 11:47 PM

Come to Sri Lanka to serve your people. Come to Sri Lanka to resurrect yourself so that when you pass away, you will be welcome to the Kingdom of God.

Posted by: Max Headroom | April 20, 2011 06:39 AM

One thing for the believer, another for the Clergy.

Posted by: dagobert | April 20, 2011 10:15 AM

There is so much toxic rhetoric that is hurled against this man of God - whose sin appears to be he stayed and suffered with, fought for and now espouse the cause of the Lankan Tamils. In the true spirit of peace and the highest tenets of religon Fr Emmanuel after all this barbarity calls for "reconciliation"
I am one of the millions of Sri Lankans across the divide praying for Fr Emmanuel's hopes realising soon.
How wonderful it will be if Sri Lanka secures that peace and reconciliation where Fr Emmanuel gets that wish to conduct a Thanksgiving Service where we can all - Christians, Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims can bow down in grateful prayer.


Posted by: Ilaya Seran Senguttuvan | April 21, 2011 10:59 AM

Fr Emmanuel is true Moses for Tamils who voiced for the voiceless Tamils for many years. Whenever i hear about him it reminds me the book "Let my people go" which he published few years back. It was an appropriate reference and comparison to Moses who freed the Jewish people from slavery and oppression. Context of his theme as a Clergyman is a fitting tribute to the oppressed Tamils in Sri Lanka.  Some of readers who commented on the article who referred LTTE to side track the main issue. LTTE is not an issue here. Issue is to address the decades old grievances of the Tamils in Sri Lanka and resolve their aspiration.

Posted by: karan paul | April 24, 2011 03:40 PM

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