Pope Francis on Tuesday visited a remote shrine of the Virgin Mary in the northern Sri Lankan town of Madhu, some 300 kilometers from the capital Colombo, to pray and meet with families of victims of the country’s civil war.
"No Sri Lankan can forget the tragic events associated with this very place," the pope told the crowd who gathered around the Shrine of Our Lady of Madhu church.
The church is located in a remote wildlife reserve in the district of Mannar, which saw a great deal of bloodshed during the 26-year civil war between the government and the separatists Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) who were seeking an independent homeland.
The shrine, which is considered the holiest Catholic shrine in the country, used to be a major pilgrimage destination and place of worship for Sri Lankan Catholics. Before the war that broke out in 1983, close to a million people attended the annual festival in Madhu.
The war greatly diminished the number of pilgrims visiting the shrine due to the presence of displacement camps, which became targets of military attacks.
"There are families here today which suffered greatly in the long conflict which tore open the heart of Sri Lanka," the pope said. "But Our Lady remained always with you.”
The pope noted that many Tamil and Sihalese families were killed "in the terrible violence and bloodshed of those years”.
An estimated 80,000 to 100,000 people died during the conflict, which came to an end in 2009 when government forces declared victory over the LTTE — but not before international human rights groups accused government forces of abuses including extrajudicial killings and forced disappearances.
"In the wake of so much hatred, violence and destruction, we want to thank [Mary] for continuing to bring Jesus, who alone has the power to heal open wounds and to restore peace to broken hearts," said Pope Francis.
During the gathering at the church, some Tamils in attendance held signs that read, “Where is our children?”
A group of Tamils also delivered a letter to the pope after the prayer service.
“No genuine attempts have been made to address the root cause of the problems” between the Sinhalese government and Northern Tamils, said Tamil rights activist Father Jeyabalan Croos.
“Genuine reconciliation is not possible unless there is credible accountability,” said the priest, whose parish is in the former conflict zone.
“The local political leaders have no spirit to expedite steps towards genuine national reconciliation including investigations into allegations of human rights violations,” he added.
Ananthy Sasitharan, a member of the Tamil National Alliance party and a member of the Northern Provincial Council, pointed out that “hundreds of Tamils are still waiting to seek justice for disappeared [family members], political prisoners and sexual harassment.”
“We are still searching for our children, relations and we need your help,” she said in reference to the pope.
Basil Fernando of the Asian Human Rights Commission said the events of the last 40 years had indeed “created a deep wound in the body of the nation”.
“What [is] needed now are healing and unity, no further conflict and [no] division,” he said.
He also warned that for true reconciliation to occur, there would have to be accountability for past crimes.
“When justice is denied, paths to violent conflicts are paved,” said Fernando, adding that the recent ouster of former strongman Mahinda Rajapaksa was a step in the right direction.
“The last election for the president has shown a formula for peace and reconciliation despite our diversity. Tamil and Muslim minorities overwhelmingly voted with the Sinhalese to oust an extremely repressive and corrupt regime and to pave the way for the possibility of good governance,” Fernando said.
Sri Lankan Catholic devotees pray during a religious service by Pope Francis at a shrine in Madhu (AFP Photo/Ishara S. Kodikara)
On Monday, Pope Francis called for the "pursuit of truth" in the "process of healing" the wounds of war.
He said the process of healing "needs to include the pursuit of truth, not for the sake of opening old wounds, but rather as a necessary means of promoting justice, healing and unity".
The pontiff called on the Tamils and Sinhalese "to rebuild the unity which was lost" during the war.
"Just as [Mary]'s statue came back to her shrine of Madhu after the war, so we pray that all her Sri Lankan sons and daughters may come home to God in a renewed spirit of reconciliation and fellowship," Pope Francis said.