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Sri Lankan president assures to help Church end disputes

President assures Church delegation's concerns raised at a meeting would be looked into immediately

Bishop Fidelis Lionel Emmanuel Fernando of Mannar discussing with President Ranil Wickremesinghe on issues affecting his diocesan area at the Presidential Secretariat on Nov. 16

Bishop Fidelis Lionel Emmanuel Fernando of Mannar discussing with President Ranil Wickremesinghe on issues affecting his diocesan area at the Presidential Secretariat on Nov. 16 (Photo: Sri Lankan Presidential Secretariat)

Published: November 18, 2022 11:19 AM GMT

Updated: December 05, 2022 05:28 AM GMT

Sri Lankan President Ranil Wickremesinghe has assured a Church delegation that his government will immediately attend to some of the outstanding issues in Mannar, a Tamil-dominated area ravaged by a 26-year-long civil war in the island nation.

The president made the assurance when Bishop Fidelis Lionel Emmanuel Fernando of Mannar and a delegation met him on Nov. 16.

The renovation of a major tank in the region, the construction of pilgrim houses at the popular Madhu shrine and securing custodianship of 72 acres of paddy land belonging to the diocese were the issues brought before the president, a delegation member told UCA News.

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President Wickremesinghe assured that the concerns raised at the meeting would be looked into immediately, Bishop Fernando told UCA News on Nov. 18.

“In fact, he agreed that the disputed land belonging to the diocese should be returned, as the Commissioner General of Lands indicated. Unfortunately, certain people look at us badly, saying we are trying to take the land back from them. It never belonged to them,” the prelate said.

Following the meeting, two representatives of the Catholic Association visited Mannar to report back to the government on the issues discussed.

Bishop Fernando also raised concerns about attempts to acquire land belonging to the diocese in Thalaimannar by the Department of Wildlife and the Department of Forest. The land, which is part of some 800 acres under the maintenance of the Mannar diocese, was gazetted by the two state agencies in 2015.

“Those lands should be returned to us by de-gazetting them. We have been promised that steps will be taken to rectify this in the near future,” Bishop Fernando said.

Bishop Fernando stressed the need to renovate the Madhu tank, which is the sole water source for 300 families in the region. The tank needs to be deepened in order to save more rainwater that can be utilized for other purposes. Currently, the water is only adequate for local use till August.

The delegation also raised concerns about the delayed implementation of the 300-million-rupee (US$1.5 million) Pilgrims Housing project funded by the Indian government.

The project involves the construction of 144 housing units within the premises of the Madhu shrine for the use of pilgrims who visit the iconic National Shrine of Our Lady of Madhu for the annual feast.

Construction work has been put on hold indefinitely by the local developer due to a sharp increase in the price of construction materials and other administrative issues.

Most houses on the campus are not in decent condition for use since they were occupied by war-displaced people in 1990, Father Peppi Sosai, administrator of Madhu Church who was part of the delegation, told UCA News.

During the civil war in the 1990s, thousands of refugee families sought safety in Madhu as the region was declared a demilitarized zone. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees provided facilities for the refugees while assuring the Church that they will be repaired and renovated once the refugees returned to their homes.

The civil war that sought an independent homeland for Tamils was militarily suppressed in 2009, 26 years after it began.

“We were told this [housing] project would be fast-tracked and would be completed soon, but only the foundation slabs have been constructed so far,” Father Sosai, who was then assistant administrator, said. “Unfortunately, they could not do it and most of the houses are in bad shape.”

The priest said the diocese has been facing disputes with a group of farmers, who were given plots belonging to the diocese on lease 20 years ago.

Some 72 acres of diocese-owned paddy land were given on lease to 27 beneficiaries. They now claim that the land belongs to the state, and it must be given to them.

The diocese is the custodian of the land located on the Eastern line of the sea since 1955 and sought the assistance of the Department of Land Commissioner General.

Following discussions between the two parties, the department recommended that the landless families are given 1.5 acres for livelihood purposes and the rest of the land should be returned to the rightful owner, Mannar diocese.

However, the beneficiaries rejected the proposal and continue to demand that land ownership be given to them.

“We have requested the president to implement what the Commissioner General recommended in order to resolve this issue,” Father Sosai said.  

The president has agreed the land belongs to the diocese and should be returned, Church officials said.


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