Sri Lanka declares Catholic site sacred

The Our Lady of Madhu shrine has come to symbolize post-civil war reconciliation
Sri Lanka declares Catholic site sacred

Sri Lankan Catholics gathering at Our Lady of Madhu Church on Aug. 15. The shrine is a symbol of unity among both Tamils and Sinhala in the island nation. (Photo supplied)

Jesica Rodrigo loves to attend the feast at the 400-year-old Marian 'Our Lady of Madhu' shrine in northern Sri Lanka each August.

She and family members, who along with thousands of other devotees set up camp nearby for seven days, also attend Masses in Tamil, Sinhala and English.

Catholic ethnic Sinhalese and Tamils, rich and poor, mingle freely at the feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

The shrine was moved to what is now the Mannar district in the 17th Century from Mantai on the Jaffna peninsula to protect it from anti-Catholic Dutch colonisers.

The Rodrigo family are from the culturally diverse western port city of Negombo in the majority-Buddhist nation.

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They and others visiting the Our Lady of Madhu Shrine listen to hymns and prayers through loudspeakers at the jungle camp from morning till evening.

Prayers seek reconciliation and prosperity.

Secessionists of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) during the 1983-2009 civil war planted landmines in the area.

This was despite Catholic representations seeking to avoid it being militarized by both sides of the conflict.

The church, 220 kilometers north of the capital Colombo, was damaged by shelling on Nov. 20, 1999, and about 40 Tamils, including children, were killed.

It sheltered thousands of internally displaced people in the wake of the conflict.

In 2008, a claymore mine exploded close to the church, killing 20 people including 11 school children.

The Rodrigo family, and many others, at various times during the civil war could not reach the shrine because of the fighting and consequent road closures.

They conducted the annual celebrations for the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary at parish churches instead.

A priest holds the miraculous Our Lady of Madhu statue during the feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. (Photo supplied)

 

Catholics in the country have welcomed approval by President Maithripala Sirisena for declaration of the shrine, which has become a symbol of post-civil war reconciliation, as a sacred place.

Father Victor Soosay, the Vicar General of Mannar Diocese, noted that Buddhists and Hindus as well as Christians and Muslims had come to pay their respects to the church and shrine.

"The government has declared many Buddhist and Hindu places of worship as sacred areas and we welcome the government move on the Madhu church," Father Soosay said.

He added that the ministries responsible for religious affairs and for tourism, with the Indian government's assistance, plan to build 300 houses to accommodate devotees.

It is the holiest Catholic shrine in the country and was consecrated during World War II.

Mariya Jeyaratnam, a Tamil mother who was wounded by artillery shells during the civil war, fled to the church along with more than 3,000 other civilians.

"Every time, when we became refugees with our children, we all ran to Mother Mary to tell her of our difficulties and hardships," said 62-year-old Jeyaratnam.

"We all flocked to the miraculous statue and prayed till midnight."

Victims were still seeking justice, she added.

Jeyaratnam stressed the importance of all religions being afforded equal treatment.

Meanwhile, Jesica Rodrigo is pleased that the Our Lady of Madhu Church and shrine will now enjoy the same status as Buddhist and Hindu places of worship.

Pope Francis previously visited the church and urged all Tamils and Sinhalese to forgive one another, she recalled.

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