Land is set aside for the church and for accommodation facilities. A second protected area is created to preserve surrounding forest. For bishop, the shrine is a symbol of unity between north and south. Outgoing president Maithripala Sirisena signed the decree.
Colombo (AsiaNews) – Sri Lankan Catholics have thanked President Maithripala Sirisena for signing a decree that makes the shrine of Our Lady of Madhu, in the Diocese of Mannar, a “sacred area”.
As his term in office comes to an end, President Sirisena set aside a protected area of jungle and forests in the northern part of the island. On 29 October, he signed the commemorative scroll (Sannas Pathraya) at the presidential secretariat.
Local Church leaders and senior government officials attended the ceremony, including the Bishop of Mannar Emmanuel Fernando, the vicar general of the diocese Fr Victor Soosai, Tourism and Christian Religious Affairs Minister John Amaratunga, as well as priests from Colombo Mannar.
“We are grateful to President Sirisena, his Office and the relevant government departments for making this possible,” Bishop Fernando told AsiaNews.
The bishop had asked the authorities for help to develop the infrastructure necessary to receive pilgrims visiting the Marian shrine. "We are certain that even non-Catholics who come to the shrine will find benefit.”
The shrine is one of the oldest Christian places of worship in Sri Lanka. Built 400 years ago, it attracts thousands of visitors – Catholics, Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims – each year.
As a result of the country’s civil war (1983-2009), it suffered serious damage and neglect, making it hard for the faithful to visit because of poor road access roads, sanitation facilities and drinking water sources.
Mandhu, which is in north-western Sri Lanka, saw fighting during the civil war and came under Tamil Tiger control.
In 1990, the church became shelter for thousands of people turning it into a virtual refugee camp. Although it was a non-military area, shelling nearby in 2008 forced the Church to close and the statue of Our Lady was moved to a safer place.
The statue of the Virgin came back on 15 August 2010 – feast day of the Assumption and date of the historic pilgrimage to Madhu – welcomed by thousands of faithful, including some non-Christians.
For the Auxiliary Bishop of Colombo J. D. Anthony, the church in Madhu is very important "because it attracts thousands of pilgrims from every part of the country. It has been a pilgrimage centre for centuries.”
In his view, the president’s “decree will help preserve the sacredness of the place without outside intrusion. For this reason, we welcome the decision to protect the shrine and its surrounding area.”
In July 2018 Sirisena visited the shrine and proposed making it a sacred area. In August, the cabinet endorsed his request.
The decree sets aside 300 acres of land, about 1.2 km square, for structures necessary for the religious activities of the church and another 5,000, or 20.2 km square) as a protected area to preserve the surrounding forest.
"This is a place where south meets north; it is a symbol of unity,” Bishop Anthony said. “We hope that the shrine can be a source of blessings for our country, in which everyone can live in peace and harmony.”