Colombo (AsiaNews) – In a few weeks time the Sri Lankan army will leave a 2.5 km2 area around Our Lady of Madhu Shrine (Mannar). The Church hopes that this move can be an occasion to celebrate the annual festivity of the Assumption of Mary (15 August), the most important pilgrimage and Catholic religious feast day in the country.
The local Security Forces Commander, Major General Jagath Jayasuriya, sent a fax to Mgr Joseph Rayappu, bishop of Mannar, in response to the prelate’s 29 April request, reassuring him of his utmost desire to “secure the area of the Madhu church and pull back his forces by 2.5 kilometres so that there will be no army presence therein.” The army, he said, was prepared “to repair the holy shrine and clear the area of any mines or unexploded bombs, something which will take about six to eight weeks.”
Mgr Rayappu faxed back his “sincerest thanks” on behalf of the “entire Church”, hopeful that the situation around the temple may soon “be back to normal.”
Our Lady of Madhu has long been a place of devotion for Catholics, both Tamil and Sinhalese, and a symbol of unity between them and the faithful of all religions.
Traditionally up to a million people have come for the 15 August celebration but in the last few years the area has been turned into a war zone by the army and the rebels of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. Currently, local refugee camps house some 15,000 people.
On 20 November 1999 44 civilians were killed and another 60 wounded in an attack both sides blame on the other.
The statue of the Holy Virgin, to whom miracles have been attributed, has been removed for security reasons (photo shows the Confessional Chapel in the church destroyed by gunfire which also hit the statue of the Sacred Heart).
In his message to the Catholic prelate Major General Jayasuriya asked to know when the “statue of Our Lady of Madhu will be brought back.” He is concerned that LTTE rebels might attack it and knowing the date might enable him to better protect the area.
The bishop told him that the information will be forthcoming as soon as the area was cleared of mines and the temple was repaired by “workers we will carefully select.”
Mgr Rayappu made the same appeal to LTTE rebels, asking them to recognise the area as a “peace zone”, but so far he has received no answer.
In April the rebels told Erik Solheim, Norway’s International Development Minister in charge of peace talks between the parties, that the army had deployed its forces in great numbers, including artillery units, in the area.
The army shot back, saying that it deployed its units in the area to counter the rebels who had aimed their mortar fire at the church.