08/12/2008, 00.00
SRI LANKA
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Shrine of Our Lady of Madhu reopened after minesweeping

by Melani Manel Perera
There will be no solemn celebrations on August 15, but from August 12-17 groups of 200 pilgrims will be able to visit the shrine. The army has swept an area around the church for mines, but the zone is still dangerous.

Colombo (AsiaNews) - As of today, the shrine of Our Lady of Madhu has been reopened, and will remain open until August 17 to allow pilgrims to visit the place during the celebrations for the feast of the Assumption. Only 200 faithful will be allowed to visit per day, since the area is still dangerous.

Just a week ago, the bishop of Mannar, Joseph Rayappu, had decided that the celebration would be canceled because of the constant fighting in the area between government troops and Tamil Tiger rebels. The shrine has been abandoned since April because of the constant fighting, and the statue of the Virgin Mary was taken away. Last week, the bishop brought the statue back to the sanctuary, but said that there would be no celebration there because the place was not safe.

"The first group of pilgrims came at 10 o'clock this morning", Msgr Victor Soosai, vicar general of the diocese, tells AsiaNews. "Every day", he adds, "about 200 pilgrims will visit, and Masses will also be held for the various groups, but there will be no solemn celebrations on August 15, which is the tradition".

The area in which the Church of Our Lady of Madhu stands, 220 kilometers north of Colombo, was under the control of the Tamil Tigers until last April 25. One year ago, the security forces of Sri Lanka and the Tamil Tigers had agreed on the institution of a "no war zone" around the shrine in order to guarantee the safety of pilgrims during the major religious holidays. But neither of the parties respected it completely. Moreover, because of the past fighting, the entire area is strewn with landmines.

In order to facilitate the visits for the pilgrims, the government soldiers have cleared the mines from an area of about one square kilometer around the shrine, and have made the road passable.

The pilgrims will be brought to the shrine on buses belonging to the government, and will be returned to a safer area. Since there are no stores open, the government is also providing food and water for the faithful. The army has also decided to take care of the repairs necessary for the church.

The shrine of Our Lady of Madhu is respected by the faithful of various religions. Every year, especially at the feast of the Assumption, up to 300,000 believers gather there.

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