Urgent Prayer Plea for Christians caught up in the Crossfire of Sri Lanka's Civil War

Saturday, July 29, 2000

By Dan Wooding

COLOMBO, SRI LANKA (July 29, 2000) (Assist) - A London-based pastor who has churches in Sri Lanka has issued an urgent prayer plea for Sri Lanka's embattled evangelical Christian community.

The Rev. Adrian Hawkes, the leader of a group of North London, UK, churches that contains many refugees from the civil war in Sri Lanka, issued his prayer request following the news of further fighting between the Sinhalese-dominated government troops and the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The LTTE, also known as the Tamil Tigers, is a group that seeks to create a separate nation for the Tamil minority in the northern and eastern portions of Sri Lanka.

"Christians in Tamil Tiger resistance areas face continual extortion from the militants and sometimes see their children kidnapped into the Tiger army," he said. "Tamils make up 40 percent of the leadership of the Protestant church and complain of racist discrimination in the society at large.

"These Tamil Christians are caught up in a terrible civil war not of their own making and are also suspected by the government of being collaborators."

Adrian Hawkes, who leads two Rainbow Churches in Edmonton and Islington, said that the civil war between the government and the Tamil Tigers continues to take a terrible toll. Recently, he said, a suicide bomber, along with his wife and 21 others killed Industry Minister C.V. Gooneratne, who was particularly sympathetic to Protestants.

"We have two congregations in the Colombo area and many cell churches in the Jaffna Peninsula," he said. "We started the work because I felt that the authorities in Europe would send some of the Tamil refugees back to Sri Lanka, as they have done, and so we felt it would be better to have our own network there to help such people.

"We sent over a couple called Kannan and Para, two Tamils who had been working with us in Switzerland. We are just about to complete a building in Wattala on the edge of Colombo it has cost around 60,000 pounds so far and is not yet finished. The money has come from London, Paris, Canada, the Pioneer network of church to which we are linked, but mostly from our Swiss churches, were we currently have around eight congregations."

Adrian Hawkes explained that although evangelicals represent only 0.5 percent of Sri Lanka's 19 million population, their churches are growing rapidly. It is partly as a result of this growth that they have seen 34 churches burned in escalating violence in the last two years.

He added that the most recent incident occurred on April 29, when a church in Galagamuwa, in northwestern Sri Lanka, was burned. The pastor had been subjected to threats from Buddhist extremists for some years, and he was assaulted in 1996. A meeting hall in Makola was attacked on January 16 and vandalized.

"My last trip was last September when we took a team of around 25 people from London," he said. "We ran concerts, games for the kids and a big final concert in our half finished building. I have been woken up at 3-00 AM by soldiers rushing into our hotel room with guns, looking for who knows what. It was quite frightening."

He said that two of his staff members, Jenny Sinnadurai and Karen Dey were in the middle of a raid just last month in Wattala. "The Sinhalese army rounded up all the Tamils in Wattala including Jenny and Karen, in the middle of the night and took them all to a football field," said Adrian. "Fortunately, Jenny grabbed her mobile phone and phoned Switzerland, and said, 'Pray! We are being arrested.' I was in Switzerland with the leaders of our work. After an hour, with Jenny and Karen asking to see the commanding officer, they were released but had an hour's walk home at 4:00 AM still in their night wear.

"Often our young men get arrested and taken to prison for no reason, usually beaten too. On one occasion, Karen Dey, who is from New Zealand but has worked now with us for around 10 years or so and speaks Tamil, went along to the prison and threatened them with publicity in Europe if they didn't release our boys, which they eventually did.

"While there, the inmates realized that she spoke Tamil and started shouting names and numbers of family member so she could contact them. What the authorities do is arrest people, and if no one claims them, they ship them north, or worse, but its hard for family to know where they have been taken when arrested because they move them around from police station to police station. If no one comes for you, then you must be a terrorist. Strange logic. Karen left the police station and phoned round various people; within 15 minutes there were crowds of people there coming to claim sons and relatives. The police were at first puzzled as to who they knew they were there, but caught on that this white girl spoke the language, so they quickly release our boys and told her to go away quick."

He added, "I can understand in some measure the nervousness of the Sinhalese authorities when any innocent-looking lady could turn out to be a suicide bomber. Therefore all the innocent become suspects."

Adrian Hawkes then recounted an incredible incident that had taken place some time ago, wondering some of the returning refugees who had been able to set up churches in the capital city of Colombo and decided to visit the north of the country to explore the possibility of establishing orphanages, schools and churches there, where the civil war is still raging.

"Things seemed to have settled down and so three of our main church leaders managed to obtain tickets on one of the now regular flights between Colombo and Jaffna, in October," said Pastor Hawkes. "They had a good time there and saw the need, assessing what best we could do to help ordinary people. They were due to fly back to the Capital. On arriving at the airport to catch the small plane (of about 50 seats) they were told that although they had booked tickets for the flight, it was full and they would have to come back the next day.


"Very upset, as some of our leaders had other international flights to catch, they went back to where they had been staying. They discovered later that the plane had been shot down and all on it, including the Russian crew, had been killed. If they had boarded that flight, they too would have been killed."

After this, all flights were cancelled and so the church leaders had to try to find another way to get back to Colombo. "Other routes out of the North are via the lagoon in a small boat in the dead of night when you are actually in the middle of the two opposing forces who shoot at each other, ignoring the fact that you are in the line of fire of both sides," said Hawkes. "Another alternative is to go via the mine field, and try to pick your way through noticing where others did not make it. Or you can get the Red Cross boat, but this can prove to be very difficult, as more want to be on it than is possible and you need a very good reason to be that person.

"You could also go as a civilian with the Sinhalese Army, on their boat. This seemed the only option to our church leaders, who needed to be in the capital for all sorts of reasons. The army is obviously scared of taking people on their boat; they might be a rebel, and so anyone who wants to go has to present themselves to a camp for searching many hours before sailing. This they did. After about two days without food and very little water, they were put on a boat; it sounds as though they were packed in like the old slave boats used to pack slaves. Two hours out to sea they where attacked by rebel gunboats and holed. They turned round and limped the two hours back into port. Everyone was unloaded back into the camp.

"A couple of days later the army asked for civilian volunteers to try again. Many of the soldiers where going home for leave and wanted desperately to get out of the peninsula. Around 500 people volunteered to go, including our church leaders. This time the boat made a detour to throw off any rebel gunboats; it also took four gunboats of its own for protection. Some twenty-sea hours later many rebel gunboats again attacked them. Their protection vessels where sunk and the soldiers killed or drowned. The rebel boats then began targeting the larger ship and a long battle ensued, killing some of the soldiers on board. Eventually they made it, but what an experience it was for them as they returned to their homeland. They were able to praise God for their safe deliverance."

He concluded by saying, "The only hope of peace in Sri Lanka is Jesus. We should care for these people because we are our brother's keepers. We need to u pray urgently for peace so that the gospel may have free course. Pray also that those there will have open eyes and also that the church there will be aware that, in the Gospel, there is neither Tamil nor Sinhalese, but all are precious in God's sight."