Holy island feast helps Sri Lankans, Indians bury the hate

Feast of St. Anthony brings sparring fisherfolk together, heals ethnic rifts as Tamils and Sinhalese pray for reconciliation
Holy island feast helps Sri Lankans, Indians bury the hate

Thousands of pilgrims attend the annual feast of St. Anthony, the guardian angel of fishermen, in Kachchathivu Island in Sri Lanka's Jaffna Diocese on March 15-16. (ucanews.com photo)

ucanews.com reporter, Colombo
Sri Lanka
March 21, 2019
Over 6,500 Sri Lankans and 2,100 Indians came together to celebrate the Feast of St. Anthony, the patron saint of seafarers, on Kachchathivu Island from March 15-16, with many Sri Lankans using the occasion to pray for national reconciliation.

This uninhabited, Sri Lanka-owned isle hosts the pilgrimage every year, providing a rare window for Sri Lanka's Tamils and Sinhalese to mingle after years of war.

It also brings fisher folk from both nations together to cement their fraternal bonds in the face of adversity.

Those ties were almost destroyed in 2017 after the navy killed an Indian fisherman, leading many from the subcontinent to boycott that year's feast.

"Fishing issues have caused huge problems for the two governments and navies," said Joseph Manuel, a Tamil Catholic from Sri Lanka who has attended the feast for years.

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He said Indian fisherman use more high-tech ways of catching fish near the shared maritime border, which the Sri Lankan side believes gives them an unfair advantage.

Indians are technically barred from fishing in Sri Lanka's territorial waters under the 1976 Maritime Boundary Agreement, but experts say many flout the law and rely on Sri Lanka's bounty of sea life for their livelihood.

Given the potential tension, Sri Lanka's navy is responsible for organizing and overseeing the annual festival on Kachchathivu, which India ceded to Sri Lanka in in 1974 under a maritime compact.

Crowds of people from Sri Lanka arrive on March 15 to celebrate after traveling hours by boat. (ucanews.com photo) 


The navy provides all the meals and infrastructure to ensure devotees have all the food, potable water and sanitary facilities they need.

Officers also make temporary jetties or "parking lots" for boats while medical, emergency and rescue teams are deployed throughout.

For Mary Nileeshia, a Sunday school teacher from Negombo, the annual feast is a magical experience that brings together people who in earlier times may have found themselves on opposite ends of a battlefield.

"This is our only opportunity to pray with people from another country, and also with different ethnic groups from our own country," said Mary Nileeshia, a Sunday school teacher from Negombo.

"This year we prayed for national reconciliation," she said.

Sri Lanka is still reeling from a 26-year civil war that ended a decade ago when the military squashed the last resistance from the Tamil Tigers, a militant ethnic group who were fighting for an independent state.

Fishermen and women from Sri Lanka and India used to meet regularly before the conflict broke out in 1983, but security concerns forbade them from visiting the island and its shrine during the war.

"Indian pilgrims have been coming here to enjoy the Feast of St. Anthony since the shrine was set up in 1905. They attend holy Mass and camp out under the sky," said Nileeshia who made the pilgrimage with six friends.

"The navy arranges everything. It takes care of security and whatever facilities we need," she added.

It also pledged 10 million rupees in 2016 and began that year building St. Anthony's as the first Catholic church on this tiny island in the Palk Bay, once used by Indian fishermen to dry their nets. The church is dedicated to St. Anthony of Padua, who Catholic fishermen regard as a guardian angel.

Sri Lanka's Navy grants the Indian visitors visa-free entry to Kachchative and allows them to stay there for 24 hours before booting them out.

It takes them about two hours to reach the island, in Jaffna Diocese, from their homes in Rameswaram, a town on Pamban Island in the southeast Indian state of Tamil Nadu.

This year, Mass was conducted by Indian Father Joshep Lurduraj, Jaffna Bishop Justin Gnanapragasam, and several priests.

Manuel described St. Anthony's is a unique place of worship because it sits on the maritime border shared by Sri Lanka and India. 

"The Indian pilgrims are brave to make the sea journey from Rameswaram because they risk difficulties at sea," Manuel said.

"And yet they come because they have such strong faith in St. Anthony, the same as us."

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