Marian shrine in Madhu to become ‘peace zone’
by Melani Manel Perera
In a meeting with Catholic bishops, President Rajapakse accepts Church proposal to guarantee safety to pilgrims visiting the island nation’s most famous Marian shrine. Christians but also Buddhists and Hindus rejoice, hopeful that these words of peace will not remain an empty statement but turn instead into concrete actions.

Colombo (AsiaNews) – Catholics, Buddhists and Hindus, Tamils and Sinhalese, have all welcomed the statement by Sri Lanka’s President Mahinda Rajapakse in which he said that a ‘peace zone’ would be established around the country’s most famous Marian shrine in Madhu at least during the main annual celebrations dedicated to Our Lady. The Catholic Church had made the proposal following the escalating conflict in the area between the Sri Lankan army and Tamil Tiger rebels. The shrine is located in a forest in the diocese of Mannar, about 220 kilometres north of the capital in a region currently under rebel control and so off-limits to pilgrims.

According to the Catholic Sinhalese weekly Ganartha Pradeepaya, Mr Rajapakse committed himself to the ‘peace zone’ idea during a recent visit (May 29) with some of the country’s Catholic bishops.

The Catholic delegation that spoke to the president included Mgr Oswald Gomis, archbishop of Colombo, Mgr Rayappu Joseph, of Mannar, Mgr Valence Mendis, of Chilaw, and Fr Ranjith Madurawela, director general of Catholic schools in the capital Colombo.

“The government has taken the necessary steps to ensure pilgrims’ safety,” the president told Catholic leaders.

If the ‘peace zone’ could set up quickly thousands of pilgrims might come to the Madhu Shrine for the annual pilgrimage on August 15, Feast of the Assumption.

The ancient statue of Mary that is preserved in the shrine is an object of deep devotion. Following the 2002 cease-fire between military and rebels, hundreds of thousands of people began visiting the shrine for the main celebrations in July, August and October.

“I am happy to hear the president say that he will guarantee the faithful safety during the traditional celebrations in Madhu Shrine,” wrote a Ganartha Pradeepaya reader. “But I hope that he will be able to ensure that the ‘peace zone’ become a year-round reality. In any event, as Catholics we appreciate his commitment.”

Before this “useless war” began, Philomina Kannangara, 78, was a constant visitor to Our Lady of Madhu for 30 years. The Tamil woman told AsiaNews that “when the whole family went on pilgrimage to the shrine, it was a moment of great joy and unity. At least now I can go back for one last time before I die.”

L.K. Karunarthna, a Buddhist from Colombo, also appreciated Rajapakse’s “words of peace.” But “let us home they are not just an empty statement,” he said.

In 1999 the Madhu Shrine was damaged during clashes that left 35 people dead. In the 1990s it served as a refugee camp for thousands of Tamil civilians.