Recall the period from late 1985 to mid-1987 in Jaffna. The Sri Lankan army was holed up in Jaffna Fort and most areas were under militant groups of various sorts. At the beginning of this period when the Sri Lankan Army, SLA, attacked an LTTE camp near Chullipuram bringing men in by helicopter, other groups came to their defence. The SLA withdrew. At the end of the period, the LTTE having consolidated its “only representative of the Tamil people” status and massacred the other groups, the SLA felt the time was ripe to dislodge the LTTE from all areas it controlled. The degree of confidence varied with commanders. Kobbekaduwa was optimistic. Ranatunga was cautious.
The Army’s first move was Operation Vadamarachi in May 1987. We lived in fear expecting an assault on Jaffna. Civilians began fleeing by the thousands each day.
In that period, a frustrated SLA like a routine each day at 6 AM and 6 PM at the changing of the guard fired shells in blind rage from the Jaffna Fort. The Tigers too were lobbing shells into the Fort. We civilians suffered. For us, it was the time to contemplate bomb-shelters in our homes. Households were divided because the army during Operation Vadamarachi shot dead those in homes with such shelters claiming they were supporters of the militancy. Not digging the shelters was equally dangerous. Without a shelter, this writer remembers standing under door jambs and writing desks with his infant children.
This was the time when Chinnakadai (Small Bazaar) area was badly damaged by army shelling. Periyakadai (Grand Bazaar) was spared because destruction there would have made the government’s vindictiveness towards its own citizens which it was bound to protect rather obvious to the outside world.
In May 1987, in anticipation of an operation, both shelling and counter-shelling got far worse, especially for the civilians. Earlier, civilians had lived in town despite the increased danger from shelling. This time most civilians evacuated. To save civilians and for geopolitical reasons the Indian airdrop followed. A young girl on whose birthday a packet of dhal was dropped on June 4 by the Indian Air Force, swears it was for her birthday.
But, then, shortly thereafter on 5 July 1987, Nelliady Madhya Maha Vidyalayam which had been turned into an army cantonment after Operation Liberation, was bombed with a suicide bomber and the soldiers there killed. (Whether it was a suicide bomber or not is questioned by the fact that the bomber was tied to his seat and his foot to the accelerator just in case he changed his mind).
The IPKF arrived. The rest is history.
Christ Church on Second Cross Street at the Main Street corner in Jaffna suffered heavily from shelling. The church had been consecrated on 26 June, 1872 under the Anglican Church of Ceylon. It had served the Burghers who occupied Chinnakadai and Bankshall street running through Chinnakadai with its famous fish market and beef stalls. An Anglican service in Portuguese was held regularly till 1925 according to parish lore. Although Portuguese families such as the Martineszes and the Vandendriesens had left by the late 1960s, by the 1970s there was only one Burgher, Ms. Silva the organist. The other members of the parish were all Tamils.
That Portuguese Burgher history of the church, however, gave it a cosmopolitan character. Worship was in English while all other Anglican parishes in Jaffna used Tamil. The parish was maintained as a special place of worship with masses in English in the Catholic Tradition. Sinhalese and other visitors to Jaffna were pastored in addition to the normal Tamil members.
However, from the late 1980s, the parish ceased to function because the building was damaged. Even the Tamil members of the parish, unable to stand the shelling, moved out of the area.
Today the parish is struggling. A man is squatting in the vicarage even as attempts were made to restore the church. On two separate occasions, soldiers who had seen a damaged statue of the Holy Virgin Mother, brought them to the church and left them there rather than let them be damaged further where they were. These were the only positive contributions to the church by army.
The Parish Church was restored partly under the previous Archdeacon of Jaffna, the Ven. Phillip Nesakumar working with the then Diocesan Bishop The Rt. Rev. Duleep de Chickera. Masses were begun regularly again in English from Jan. 2017 under Jaffna’s new Archdeacon, The Ven. Sam Ponniah. The church received its first episcopal visitation on Sunday 25 Feb. 2018 when the Rt. Rev. Dilo Canagasabey, Bishop of Colombo, came to the North and held a Service of Confirmation (in faith) for 21 persons. He had attended Evensong at least once before.
Over 1500 Anglicans from Jaffna’s Anglican parishes (at Nallur, Chundikuli, Kopay, Urumpirai and Kokkuvil) joined in worship last Sunday.
Restoration was incomplete with divided thoughts on getting on with life as against maintaining the church in damaged state as a reminder of the evils of war. Now Bishop Canagasabey has ordered that one wall be maintained as a monument to the evils of man against man, and the rest of the church be fully restored. Funds have been identified by the Bishop for completion of the restoration.
The issue now is members. With all previous members gone, will the parish even after restoration, get sufficiently numerous members to function with financial independence? The Methodist Church in Jaffna, just 2 blocks away by Central College, had similar problems but is successfully restored with a vibrant parish life under a full-time Minister. Their success is owed in part to the fact that the Methodists within the Jaffna Municipality have only that one church and cannot go away to other parishes in the Municipality like the Anglicans have done.
Christ Church is the only place in Jaffna where Tamils and Sinhalese can worship together. It has to succeed. One good sign is that an old parishioner, Ariaratnam of Ceylon Tobacco Company, has rebuilt his parents’ house on Fourth Cross Street and is a regular worshipper at Christ Church.
If Tamil expatriates truly want to help their homeland, they should return and live here, said another former member of the Diaspora who has returned and worships at his ancestral parish. (Report filed by a Jaffna reader)