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Deadly shooting sparks Indian pilgrim boycott in Sri Lanka

Dark cloud hangs over popular cross-border St. Anthony festival after death of fisherman

Deadly shooting sparks Indian pilgrim boycott in Sri Lanka

Pilgrims attend the annual feast of St. Anthony on Kachchatheevu Island in Jaffna Diocese, Sri Lanka. Indian devotees boycotted the feast March 10-12 after the Sri Lankan navy allegedly shot one of their fishermen. (ucanews.com photo)

ucanews.com reporters, Sri Lanka and India
India

March 14, 2017

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Over 5,000 pilgrims from India shunned the annual feast of St. Anthony on an Sri Lankan island following the shooting and killing of an Indian fisherman.

The 22-year-old fisherman was killed and another injured allegedly by the Sri Lankan Navy on March 6 for fishing in Sri Lankan waters. The Sri Lankan navy has denied responsibility and told media they would release a report on the incident by the end of March.

"With the local fishing community mourning the death of one of their son, there was no question of going on this annual pilgrimage," said Father Sagayaraj, parish priest at Rameswaram and chief coordinator of the Indian pilgrimage.

No one lives on the barren  in Palk Bay where Indian fishermen — from a two-hour boat journey from Rameswaram, India — would traditionally use to dry their nets. The island, not far from where the shooting took place, originally belonged to India but was ceded to Sri Lanka in 1974. Thousands of Indians, who do not require a passport or visa to visit the island, travel to attend Mass during the feast day.

The island has a small church dedicated to St. Anthony of Padua, who local fisherfolk pray to for safety while at sea and as their guardian angel. The feast has been celebrated for over 100 years on the second Sunday in Lent rather than on June 13, St. Anthony's feast day according the church's liturgical calendar.

Father Pathinathar Josephthas Jebaratnam, Vicar General of Jaffna Diocese in Sri Lanka, who celebrated the feast day Mass on March 12, said it was shame none of the Indian boats arrived for this tradition that goes back hundreds of years.

"We expected 10,000 devotees in total but 4,900 devotees who registered from India did not attend," said Father Jebaratnam, who celebrated Mass with 25 priests.

"Father Sagayaraj informed us that none of them are coming this year due to fishermen issues," Father Jebaratnam told ucanews.com

Indian boat owners stopped setting sail after the shooting. "They are protesting the death of their young colleague so there was no chance of going to the festival," said Father Sagayaraj.

Father Sagayaraj said priests and Catholics from Sri Lanka contacted him and expressed their anguish over the death of the fisherman and the absence of Indian Catholics at the annual festival.

"I hope things improve and we will go for the annual pilgrimage next year," the priest said.

The maritime boundary around Kachchatheevu Island continues to cause tension between the Sri Lankan Navy and Indian Navy and fisherman from the two countries are at odds, arguing about the use of trawlers and environmental degredation.

"The church can do nothing in this regard but we always condemn the killings, shootings, arresting and imprisonment of the fishermen," Father Sagayaraj added.

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