Faithful against the transfer of the statue of Our Lady of Madhu
by Melani Manel Perera
The bishop of Mannar has had the venerated image moved because of the escalation of fighting between the army and Tigers in the area of the sanctuary. Catholics are asking why he chose an area under the complete control of the rebels, and hypothesise pressure.

Colombo (AsiaNews) - Many Catholics in Sri Lanka, devoted to the Virgin Mary, disapprove of the decision of the bishop of Mannar to move the statue of Our Lady of Madhu to the church of Thevanpitti, at the northernmost border of the diocese.  The decision of Bishop Rayappu Joseph - carried out last April 4 - is the epilogue of a drama that for months has been afflicting the local Church and the pilgrims who, in great numbers and from all the ethnic and religious groups, come to the famous shrine of Madhu.  The area has become the theatre of escalation of the military confrontation between the army and the Tamil Tiger rebels.  So after many appeals for better security, the bishop decided to move the venerated image of the Virgin Mary.  But instead of selecting a place under the control of the army, he chose an area farther into the interior and completely under the control of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).  The decision met with disappointment from the faithful, who are now asking "whether the bishop trusts more in the rebels, whether the shrine is the property of the government, of the LTTE, of the diocese, of the Tamils, or is not simply the heritage of all the pilgrims?".

Interviewed by AsiaNews on the topic, some Catholics in Colombo expressed their doubts and called upon the bishops' conference to act in a more decisive manner. "The responsibility for protecting a sacred place", says one woman at the shrine of Saint Anthony in Colombo, "belongs to the entire Church, and not only to the bishop of Mannar.  It is the bishops' conference that must open a direct dialogue with the Tigers and the government, and this is not a political affair".  "We do not understand why bishop Rayappu Joseph took this decision", say Mr and Mrs Nicholas.  "It seems that the bishop acted under pressure from the rebels, otherwise we are sure that he would have moved the statue to his house or to a parish in an area already 'cleared' by the government forces".  This opinion is also shared by the commander of the army, General Sarath Fonseka, according to whom the transfer of the statue is proof that the LTTE "are losing control of the area of Madhu", and, aware of their imminent defeat, are exerting pressure on the bishop and the local clergy.

There are also some among the Catholics in Colombo who maintain that if the bishop has taken this decision in the interest of the community, "he has acted for the best".

The image of the Virgin Mary at the shrine of Madhu, 220 kilometres north of Colombo, has been venerated for 400 years.  Until just a few years ago, it was always considered by the warring parties as a "free zone" and was spared from violence.  In recent years the area was also a refuge for families, both Tamil and Sinhala, fleeing the civil war.