With the dawn of the New Year also came an answer to the struggles Pas. Soosaiyappu Coonge, alias Pas. Nimal had been facing for almost a decade. Living and pastoring in Thalvupadu, Mannar, in the North of Sri Lanka, Pastor Nimal is one among the minority of protestant Christians, living in a Catholic stronghold. His work as a pastor of the Apostolic Church in Mannar has therefore brought him under the radar, making him a target of violence and intimidation to a section of the surrounding Catholic community that questions the legality of his Christian ministry.
In the year 2004, the Apostolic Church faced a violent attack by a mob, led by certain members of the Catholic clergy. Though a case was filed at the Magistrates Court, Mannar, the defendants were not convicted of an offense, with the Magistrate instructing the parties to settle the case amicably. A settlement was entered into and the magistrate instructed the defendants to pay damages to the aggrieved parties. While the defendants paid damages, this too however, failed to cover the extent of damage caused to the church. In response to this, the National Christian Evangelical Alliance, a strong advocate for the cause of religious rights and freedoms, provided support by assisting in the reconstruction of the church and providing legal aid.
While the case progressed the pressure exerted on Pas. Nimal and his congregation took various forms, where they faced a great many challenges, in the form of threats and intimidation in meeting together for worship.
The conclusion of the case in the year 2013 however, didn’t lead to a breakthrough for Pas. Nimal. The first prayer meeting that he held on the 02nd of May 2013, following the case, saw a Catholic leader of the area together with some villagers stand outside the premises of the church and cause a commotion stating that prayer meetings cannot be held there. Following this the area police arrived and both parties were summoned once again for an inquiry. The area police then subsequently filed a case against both Pas. Nimal and the Catholic leader on grounds of breach of peace.
After years of standing firm in a faith that they had little freedom to practice, Pas. Nimal and his congregation finally found justice through the Courts of Mannar on the 21st of January 2014. Though the 2011 Circular, released by the Ministry of Buddha Sasana and Religious Affairs that has been used by state officials as a basis for the forced closure of churches, was presented by the defendants on this occasion as well, to argue the illegality of which the Apostolic Church of Mannar, the Courts held that the 2011 Circular was invalid and could not be used as it was cancelled in January 2012 by the Ministry of Buddha Sasana and Religious Affairs. The court thereby ruled that Pas. Nimal and his congregation had the freedom to worship and reconstruct the church, which was destroyed by the mob in 2004.
Almost a month following the ruling, the NCEASL had the opportunity of meeting with Pas. Nimal in Mannar, who was a participant at an advocacy seminar organized by the NCEASL on Law and the Church.
Below is the recording and translation of Pas. Nimal’s interview with us.
My name is Pastor. Soosaiyappu Coonge-everyone calls me Nimal. I serve at the Apostolic Church. I have been a pastor in the village of Thalvupaadu since 2004. In the year 2004, the village had a Catholic population of 95 %.
While engaged in this service in the year 2004, I was faced with a lot of pressure and problems from the people and certain priests of the area. Though the environment was volatile and we found it very hard to carry on our ministry, we were able to conduct it quite freely in our homes, until the year 2007. Following this however a police complaint was made against us stating that we couldn’t carry out our ministry in this village. I went to the Mannar police, after the police complaint was made.
The land where we conducted our services on was given to my father 40 years ago, for a subsidised rate by members of the Catholic community. The Mannar police pointed out that since this land was presented in that context, I was permitted to reside on it, but not conduct worship services there. They went onto say that if I wished to conduct worship services there, I would be required to purchase a land for that purpose. They gave us a period of six months, to do so.
We immediately set about trying to purchase a land, within the stipulated period. We bought a plot of land in the village of Thalvupaadu, from members of the Muslim community. After having purchased the land, we had it written in the name of the Apostolic Church of Thalvupaadu, Mannar. We built a church on this land and conducted our worship services there.
One Sunday morning, while we were conducting our morning service, a Catholic mass was also taking place in the very same village, approximately two kilometers away from where we were. The Catholic priests from the congregation and their congregation gathered before our church while our service was in progress. They started making a commotion, shouting, “come outside, come outside…” We sent a message through a young boy to them, requesting that they wait a little. Not heeding this, they entered the premises of the church. First the Catholic priest came and caused damage to the entrance of the church and began to shout. Following that all who had congregated there came in and completely destroyed our church. Once they had destroyed everything, we felt as though we were left standing outdoors.
When we informed the Mannar police of this incident, the police handed it over to the Mannar courts. The Mannar courts took 6-7 years to hear the case regarding this issue.
During this period, a very volatile atmosphere prevailed, where we couldn’t engage in worship. Those opposing our ministry came together and engaged in protests, waving flags in front of the courthouse.
We were forced to temporarily stop our worship services for a period of approximately three months and conduct it elsewhere as the environment wasn’t suitable to conduct services where we were. Subsequently, through the courts, we were given an opportunity to continue with our worship services.
The villagers in Thalvupaadu who opposed, presented the courts with a circular that had been released by the Ministry of Buddha Sasana and Religious Affairs, that could potentially put an end to our worship services.
The NCEASL, which was a source of strength to us from the beginning, provided us with legal advice and helped us proceed with the case whilst helping us.
When we informed the NCEASL, that such a circular had been presented to the courts, the NCEASL presented another document to the courts that verified that the said circular had been cancelled.
On the 21st of January 2014, we got a ruling from the Mannar courts, which stated that we could continue with our worship services in the church. We would therefore like to thank the NCEASL and ask God’s blessings on the organization, for all the legal advice and the correspondence they conducted on our behalf.