07/31/2009, 00.00
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Half a million pilgrims travelling to Our Lady of Madhu, calling for peace and reconciliation

by Melani Manel Perera
Last minute preparations are underway for the pilgrimage. The tradition which began some 400 years ago will culminate in the Feast of the Assumption on 15 August. In order to reach the shrine many pilgrims will have to travel through areas holding hundreds of thousands of refugees.
Colombo (AsiaNews) – The countdown for the great national pilgrimage to Our Lady of Madhu has begun across Sri Lanka. The Sir Lanka government has said that it will guarantee the safety of the half a million pilgrims expected to make the trek to the shrine, which is located some 220 kilometres north of Colombo. It will especially guarantee security and free access to the area, which was under Tamil Tiger control for a long time. The traditional pilgrimage, which will culminate with the Solemnity of the Assumption on 15 August, will thus renew itself after decades of suspension because of the war between the Sri Lankan military and Tamil rebels.

The government in Colombo has asked the faithful to pay tribute to the soldiers who gave them the freedom to celebrate without fear an event that has history that goes back almost 400 years.

Whilst Catholic and non-catholic pilgrims are getting ready to travel to Our Lady of Madhu, this year’s celebrations cannot ignore the plight of hundreds of refugees who still live in camps in northern Sri Lanka.

For them the pilgrimage will be an opportunity to pray before Our Lady asking for national reconciliation and peaceful coexistence between Sinhalese and Tamils as well as the return of refugees to their homes.

Fr Lasantha De Abrew, a Jesuit priest who works with the Lanka Centre for Social Concern, told AsiaNews that “to reach the shrine southerners must travel through the Cheddikulam area where there are hundreds of thousands of refugees, all of them from the North, some of whom are devout followers of Our Lady of Madhu. Buses, cars and lorries will drive through the area’s roads and we shall have to remember the suffering of our brothers in Christ who live in the refugee camps.”

Recently the Jesuit priest visited camps in Vavuniya and Cheddikulam. He found that the emergency situation affecting internally displaced people (IDPs) is actually getting worse. “Most of the camps face acute water shortage” and “lack proper toilet facilities,” not to mention the “spreading of chickenpox and jaundice,” he said.

“These camps were [. . .] built haphazardly,” he added. “Relatives” can only talk “through barbed wire” on the edges of the camps, and “only for a few minutes”.

“The death rate per day for one camp fluctuates between six and eight. Every day about hundred patients are transported to Vavuniya hospital for treatment. These patients could not be attended to by the mobile clinics within the camps. That shows the acute nature of the IDPs’ suffering,” Father Lasantha said. “But the greatest suffering of all comes from not knowing whether they can go home. They have lost hope.”

Six priests and a nun are also among the refugees. “They are Oblates of Mary Immaculate: Father Alfred and Father Reginald, Father Neru from the diocese of Mannar, Father Mariyadas, Father Amalraj and Father Stephen from the diocese of Jaffna; with them, Sister Rubharani,” said the Jesuit priest.

Talking about the upcoming pilgrimage Father Lasantha said that “on 15 August, the suffering, tears and grief of northern refugees will join the prayers of southerners in Our Lady of Madhu.”

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