Sri Lanka: Church asks president to help refugees

President Mahinda Rajapakse has assured Catholic bishops and Caritas officials that displaced Tamil war refugees currently residing in camps in the north, will be released in groups to return to their homes.

The May 11 meeting in the presidential palace in Colombo, was attended by Archbishop Oswald Gomis of Colombo, together with Bishops Kingsley Swampillai of Trincomalee-Batticaloa, Valence Mendis of Chilaw, Cletus Chandrasiri Perera of Ratnapura and Harold Anthony Perera, chairman of the bishops'
commission for justice, peace and human development.

Father Damian Fernando, national director of Caritas Sri Lanka, as well a group of Christian parliamentarians also attended the meeting.

Father Fernando told UCA News the delegation explained to the president the plight of the displaced people in camps. Many are separated from their families, and there is no education program for the children in the absence of facilities.

The camp conditions are particularly hard on elderly people who should be released immediately, the priest said.

Many people have fled from the war zone in the coastal area of Mullativu. There are now about 200,000 refugees confined in camps far from their home villages in Mannar, Kilinochchi and Mullativu.

The camps are ringed with barbed wire and guarded by soldiers. The refugees are not allowed to leave as the government says they are a security risk.

During the recent meeting, the president briefed the bishops on the work carried out by state officials for the displaced.

According to Father Fernando, Rajapakse said he appreciated the work of Caritas, the Catholic Church's social service agency, and assured bishops that resettlement would take place once areas are cleared of land mines. He told the delegation that 210 families had recently been resettled in the eastern coast of Mannar and that the process will continue in other areas soon.

But some say more than talk was required. "We require a visible shift from sympathy for displaced Tamils to an affirmation of their rights and dignity," said Anglican Bishop Duleep de Chickera of Colombo in a statement to the president and other politicians recently.

He stressed the need for a just and speedy political response to the grievances of the Tamil people. "These grievances must be heard and best articulated by a cross-section of the independent Tamil leadership."

The war between Tamil separatists from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and government forces has been going on for 25 years. To date, more than 80,000 people have been killed and millions displaced. Government troops currently have the upper hand in the fighting, having captured most of the rebel areas. They are now targeting just three square kilometers of land under LTTE control, where more than 50,000 civilians are also trapped.


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