Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Sri Lanka: Religious feast embodies hopes for peace

By IPS Correspondents

Republished permission Inter Press Service (IPS )copyright Inter Press Service (IPS) and

MADHU, Sri Lanka, Aug 19 (IPS) - The jungle church was once again filled with devotees camping out for days to take part in the feast of the Virgin Mary of Madhu. It had been over 27 years since the last occasion when tens of thousands of believers streamed into the church located at Madhu, in the north-western Mannar District, about 300 km from the capital Colombo.

In 1982 the jungle shrine was caught in the crossfire between government forces and the Tamil separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), preventing devotees, especially from the south, from travelling there. The war ended in May, when government forces wiped out the Tigers, who had been fighting for a separate state for ethnic Tamils since the 1970s.

On August 15, over half a million gathered at the church to celebrate the feast, the first in over a quarter century, or since peace was achieved. (Elsewhere in the world, that day also marked the celebration of the Feast of the Assumption of Mary among Catholics.)

The government had lifted travel restrictions imposed on civilians and others taking the journey to Madhu. The usual stringent checks were replaced by screenings and registrations of travellers that were nothing more than a formality. The security authorities had in fact opened a new road that prevented travelling through a larger checkpoint, where all vehicles heading north of the Medavachchya town must pass through.

"For years we have heard of Madhu. This is the first time that I have come here; this was always a place of peace. And now more than ever, it symbolises what we all want—peace," Paul Ajith, a Catholic devotee from the western coastal town of Wennappuwa, told IPS. He had travelled to Madhu for the first time last week.

Worshippers like Ajith believe that the miraculous powers of the two-foot, 500-year-old statue of the Virgin had prevented any harm from befalling it or the Shrine. The church, located around 10 km deep inside a jungle, lay in the path of the advancing Sri Lankan government forces and fighters from the LTTE desperately trying to hold them in March and April 2008.

"Fighting had been going on for one year in the area. By the last week of March last year, we had decided not to leave the Madhu Shrine. However, fighting was intensifying," said Catholic priest S. Emilianuspillai, who was the caretaker at the Shrine at that time.

He said the LTTE was not in the church grounds. They were firing from the outside. "Though the LTTE was not firing from the Shrine premises, there was frequent shellfire exchanged between the two parties," he added.

By early April 2008, church authorities had decided to remove the statue from the Shrine, the first time in 500 years, for its own safety. On April 3, the Tigers had reneged on earlier pledges not to use the church compound for firing, and moved mortar pieces to the compound, recalled Emilianuspillai. The statue was removed from the church in the early evening of April 3 amidst shell fire. Despite a shell falling close to the vehicle travelling in front of the one carrying the statue, nothing happened to it, the priest recalled.

"We wanted to save the statue. We will not get a miraculous statue like this again. That was our main intention," he said. Five months later, in November 2008, the statue returned to its home at Madhu; a year and four months later, tens of thousands gathered around it, seeking its protection and prayers. The majority were Catholics and from the majority Sinhala community from the south. But the feast also attracted visitors from other religions.

"You have to come here to experience this, the unity among all," said Methodist minister Tulin Colombage, who was at Madhu for the feast. "We have gone through so much bloodshed in the last 30 years. Now we have the chance to make peace."

It was the hope for peace that resonated throughout the High Mass on August 15. "May the peace that you share today in the Holy Eucharist flow into your families, workplaces, parishes and into your villages. Now it is time to put justice into practice, first in your life and then in the country," said Catholic archbishop Malcolm Ranjith during his sermon.

He appealed, however, to the government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa to ensure the return of normalcy to the lives of tens of thousands of Tamils, who now live in welfare camps after being displaced by the last bouts of fighting.

"There are lakhs of pilgrims gathered here today. What a beautiful day it is," said Ranjith. "But there is another crowd who was not able to come today. It would have been so meaningful and beautiful if our own brothers and sisters in the IDP [internally displaced people] camps were here today."

Then his plea: "I appeal to all the relevant authorities, to expedite the resettlement of these people in their own villages. We know that there are difficulties and challenges," he said. "But I appeal [to them] to find solutions to these difficulties and do the utmost to help these people to begin a new life. They are our own brothers and sisters; they are our own citizens of this country."

There are at least 280,000 IDPs remaining in the welfare centres in the districts of Mannar, Vavuniya, Trincomalee and Jaffna. Over 220,000 of those live on the sprawling Menik Farm site that lies about 30 minutes east of Madhu. The Sri Lankan government has imposed strict access restrictions into the camps as well as on those who live there based on security threats.

There are fears that former Tiger cadres could still be hiding among the civilians. To allay these fears, President Rajapaksa announced that the target was to commence resettling at least 60 percent of the IDPs before the year is over.

The Virgin of Madhu has survived wars and other turmoil since her arrival on the island in the 1500s. In the late 1600s, she survived Dutch prosecution and was rediscovered, unharmed, hidden inside a tree, 400 years later. Last year, she survived shell and gun fire and has once again returned to her home.

For the millions who believe in her like Ajith, the Virgin of Madhu is the beacon of hope and peace for a better country. "The Virgin will always keep us safe; she will never let us down; she has always been with us; she was with us for thirty years through war and she will be with us forever," he said.
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