New Delhi (AsiaNews) – More than 4,000 Tamil pilgrims from Sri Lanka and India took part in two days of celebration that started on 27 February in honour of Saint Anthony on Kachchatheevu, a small island 24 kilometres from Rameshwaram and 70 from Jaffna, in the middle of the strait that separates India from Sri Lanka. More than a hundred boats carrying about 3,000 pilgrims came from India under escort of the Indian Navy, which eventually handed them over to the Sri Lankan Navy. About a thousand pilgrims from Nedundeevu and the Jaffna Peninsula were already on the island.
When the Indians arrived Saint Anthony’s flag was raised. Mass was celebrated in the evening before a large crowd. Not all of the 4,000 worshippers could fit in the church and had to follow the service from the adjacent square; next came the Via Crucis and the blessing. The faithful spent the night on the island, and got up early in the morning for the 6:30 am Mass, celebrated by Fr Amalraj, parish priest of Nedundeevu, and Fr Michaelraj, parish priest of Rameshwaram. Government officials attended the ceremony and the car procession. Around 10 am, pilgrims began making their way home.
A “spiritual joy prevailed among the pilgrims of India and Sri Lanka at Kachchatheevu, Tamils of both countries witnessed expressions of solidarity, particularly among the fishing communities,” Fr Jebamalai Raja SJ, coordinator of the Ecumenical Christian Forum for Human Rights, told AsiaNews. “As no one is actually living in Kachchatheevu, people brought their cooked meals and shared with one another in a spirit of brotherhood and sisterhood like early Christian communities.”
Once part of the Zamindari of the Raja of Ramnad, Kachchatheevu Island was ceded by India to Sri Lanka in 1974 as part of a maritime boundary agreement.
Under the terms of the agreement, Indian fishermen were guaranteed access to the island’s waters. Indian pilgrims also retained the right to visit the Church of Saint Anthony without a visa or permission from Sri Lanka.
However, “for various reasons the traditional fishing rights of Indian fishermen were denied at Katchadeevu. In the past, whenever Indian fishermen went near Katchadeevu to fish, they were beaten up, injured, killed and their boats destroyed by Sri Lankan Navy,” Fr Jebamalai said.
By contrast, the feast day of Saint Anthony has become a moment of peace. “After 27 years, the Sri Lankan government granted pilgrims the permission to celebrate the feast day. Fishermen from both countries were able to meet, and ties of love and unity binding Tamils on both sides have been strengthened. Everyone shared the same hopes, aspirations and plans.”