Sri Lankan govt declares shrine a sacred place

In the heart of a one-time conflict zone, it continues to attract faithful from all over the country
Sri Lankan govt declares shrine a sacred place

The Shrine of Our Lady of Madhu in northwest Sri Lanka is now a sacred place. (Photo by Sena Vidanagama/AFP)

The Sri Lankan government has declared a Madhu shrine which once housed thousands of refugees a sacred place.

President Maithripala Sirisena handed over documents to Bishop Emmanuel Fernando of Mannar honoring the Shrine of Our Lady of Madhu on Oct. 29, just two weeks before the presidential election, which he is not contesting.

The cabinet last year approved the president’s proposal to declare the shrine a sacred area.

The 400-year-old historical jungle building, 220 kilometers north of Colombo, is in an area previously controlled by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), better known as the Tamil Tigers, and housed thousands of refugees since 1990.

It continues to draws many worshipers from all over the country and is the holiest Catholic shrine to Our Lady of Madhu. The church contains a statue of the Virgin Mary, which was brought for safekeeping from the Dutch in the 17th century, and was consecrated in 1944, near the end of World War II.

President Sirisena said the shrine area would be developed and maintained with the highest facilities for the benefit of not only Sri Lanka but also the world.

“I am happy to be involved in declaring the shrine of Madhu a sacred place,” said the president. who is not standing in the Nov. 16 election, opting instead to vacate his post after four years.

“Pope Francis came to Sri Lanka three days after I was elected president,” he told a gathering attended by Bishop Fernando and other priests in Colombo. “And it is my fate that I have two weeks to go before my term ends and hand over this sacred site to you.”

The government duly issued a gazette notice declaring 300 acres of land around the building as part of the shrine area.

A record 35 candidates are standing in the election, whose campaign has centered on the theme of national security in the wake of the Easter Sunday attacks which killed 259 people including 37 foreign nationals.

A symbol of unity

Declaring the shrine a sacred place is the most welcome news for Catholics in Buddhist-majority Sri Lanka.

Thousands of faithful camp out in the nearby jungle during festival seasons and don’t mind what language the prayers are conducted in.

Moreover, the shrine has become a symbol of unity among not only rich and poor but also among once-feuding Sinhalese and Tamils, who often visit together and even share their food while there.

Nimmi Fernando, who visits the spot every August, rejoiced in the fact people of all backgrounds and beliefs mingle freely for several feasts.

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“The shrine has been a symbol of unity among different religions, including Buddhists, Hindus and Protestants,” said Fernando, a member of the Legion of Mary in Negombo.

The Tamil Tigers planted explosives and heavily mined the area surrounding the church during the civil war.

The church itself was shelled in November 1999, killing 37 people, including children, and wounding 59 more. The Church of the Sacred Heart to the left of the shrine also sustained serious damage from wartime bombings.

A claymore mine exploded under a bus, killing 20, including 11 schoolchildren near Madhu in 2008.

The bishop of Mannar often called on each side in the conflict not to inflict civilian casualties and pleaded for the area around the church to be a war-free-zone, but neither the Tigers nor the army ever consented.

Pope Francis visited Madhu in 2015 and met victims of the country’s 25-year civil war while he was there. The pope urged Tamils and Sinhalese to use Madhu as a place to forgive each other.

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