Sri Lankan civil war drives "Our Lady of Madhu" into exile
By Satheesan Kumaaran
Wednesday, April 9, 2008
Things are getting worse as the Sri Lankan civil war drags on. Even "God" is not exempt from the affects of the three-decade-long war between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan armed forces. "Our Lady of Madhu" and her believers were forced to search for safety after heavy battle broke out early last week between the LTTE and the SLA (Sri Lankan Army). This, no doubt has shocked Catholics around the world. The church has informed the Vatican and is awaiting their resolution to the problem through diplomatic means.

Portuguese missionaries under the patronage of Saint Francis Xavier brought Roman Catholicism to Sri Lanka in the early 1500s. When the Dutch conquered the island and began stamping out Catholicism, a small band of native Catholics converted by the Portuguese took to the jungle, carrying a statue of the Madonna (Our Lady of the Rosary) with them in 1670. Eventually, a church was built to house it in Madhu. As no one can live in the jungle during the wet season, Mary is alone for months until the rains pass and her believers again journey to Madhu. The pilgrimage takes a month. They sing hymns and chant the Rosary as they trudge through the deep tangled growth. It is customary for the sick to remain outside the church and chant their entreaties loud enough for Mary to hear them. The dust outside the little church has been proven to cure the bites of poisonous snakes.

War comes to "Our Lady of Madhu"

As it became more evident that "Our Lady" would become the center of the GoSL's effort to take over LTTE-controlled lands last July, the Bishop of Mannar began urging the GoSL and the LTTE to leave the Madhu church alone. The Bishop even went so far as to meet the LTTE political wing and the Sri Lankan government leaders last year to urge them to declare the church premises and region a peace zone without success.

Last week, the Bishop petitioned the international community to immediately intervene by exerting pressure upon both conflicting parties to save Madhu from instances of military aggression. In an appeal handed over to the Mannar District Secretariat, again he urged the LTTE and GoSL to respect the area of the Madhu Shrine as a 'zone of peace'. Around 5,000 Mannar residents gathered at St. Sebastian's Cathedral in Mannar town on April 2 for a special prayer service and a peace march to the District Secretariat to hand over the appeal. Just as the peaceful demonstration began, the SLA began military attacks targeting the church grounds. The Bishop reported, "Shells are falling within the church premises several times and many of those staying there have been compelled to leave, while priests and the other church workers who are still remaining, live in fear and are being forced to seek shelter in bunkers."

Church officials said, "Shells were exploding near the Shrine of Our Lady of Madhu as the SLA continued to fire shells from Periya Pandivirichchaan and Chinna Pandivirichchaan areas since noon Wednesday. The shelling ceased for only two hours from 3:30 a.m. till 5:30 a.m. on Thursday." The pro-LTTE website quoted the Madhu Church priest as saying, "If you manage to look outside from here, you only see smoke and dust in the atmosphere amid deafening noise."

The Catholic priests and sisters left the church on April 3, with the statue of "Our Lady of Madhu" in search of protection. They reached St. Sebastian Church located in the LTTE-held Thevanpiddi, around 70 km northwest of Madhu.

While the physical symbols of the gods of other religious, including Islam and Hinduism, and places of worship were destroyed in the war, no-one fled with their sacred icons in search of protection like the worshippers of "Our Lady of Madhu."

The Catholics have not lost their earnest belief and hope that their beloved Madonna will return home along with her believers once peace is re-established in the region. However, the SLA is not willing to stop the war in the region until they have control of the area.

LTTE and GoSL willing to pay any price for Madhu

The GoSL is not relenting in its fight for Madhu, not because it wants to save the Madhu Church from the LTTE but because the Sri Lankan government wants to use the Catholics to showcase to the world that they are the vanguards of Catholicism in Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan government also does not want LTTE to get the support of the Catholic clergy and through them have any influence in the West. These clergymen, during their meetings with those western diplomats who visit Tamil areas, exert pressure upon the diplomats to urge the Sri Lankan government to end the conflict through peaceful means.

The Sri Lankan government believes that by capturing the areas controlled by the LTTE, they could bring the Catholic clergy under their influence and, in so doing, keep them from making such calls for peace around the world -- in other words, they could keep the politics in Colombo going smoothly. By maintaining a facade of control over the situation, the government could appeal for monetary aid from foreign countries that would be afforded only if the Sri Lankan government entered into genuine peace talks with the LTTE, and if the money was not spent on fighting the Tamils.

Madhu is one of the most famous destinations for pilgrims of all communities, including Hindus and Tamil and Sinhala Catholics. They visit Madhu every year to take part in religious events. The pilgrims have to go through all the checkpoints of the LTTE. The SLA also fears that the LTTE may use the Sinhala pilgrims to carry out bomb attacks in the south.

The LTTE is fighting very diligently to maintain their stability in the region. The LTTE abandoned their camps in the east in order to maintain their bases in the north and senior commandos were deployed to all four fronts in the North to resist the SLA attacks. Military experts claim that if the LTTE lose Mannar, including Madhu, they will also lose other strategic locations, preventing them from transporting goods and their soldiers by sea.

The LTTE's main military objective has been to keep the SLA under check.

Both parties have proven they are willing to pay any price to maintain control of the holy land, thereby sustaining their political and military survival.

Contradictory statements from LTTE and GoSL

While church officials live in fear of the battles between the LTTE and SLA, the GoSL in Colombo and LTTE in Kilinochchi exchange heated statements regarding the situation. International media outlets such as BBC, Reuters, PTI, AFP and CNN have been calling Colombo and Kilinochchi to find out what was happening on the ground, but have been receiving contradictory statements.

Sri Lanka's military spokesman, Udaya Nanayakkara, said: "Catholic priests at Madhu Church confirmed that the LTTE had directed mortar fire to the Church premises." However, the church immediately counter-claimed that the LTTE fighters were located near the church area, with SLA soldiers just 1km away and trying to infiltrate. Military observers say that the military spokesman made false statement; that reports that the LTTE fired mortar attacks toward the church grounds were foolish since Madhu is in a region controlled by the LTTE.

The military spokesman further said that the LTTE intended to evict the priests at the Madhu Church and cause damage to the sacred Madhu Church premises to tarnish the image of the SLA. The LTTE posed this question in response, "Why do we need to tarnish the image of the SLA since the church officials and civilian observers are the witnesses from the ground?" LTTE military spokesman, Ilanthirayan, categorically denied the charges saying that Colombo was engaged in false and malicious propaganda to tarnish the image of the LTTE in the eyes of the international community.

In the meantime, the Sri Lankan army commander, Sarath Fonseka, told the state-controlled Daily News newspaper on Saturday that the conveyance of the Sacred Statue of Our Lady of Madhu by church priests under LTTE pressure was a clear indication that the LTTE had lost control of the area and were unable to hold their ground. He said further that the LTTE have put pressure on the priests because they do not want to see this sacred place under the control of the SLA and civilians arriving to worship. The army commander's statement shows that he is doing his best to satisfy the politicians in Colombo and placate the Buddhist monks who claim that no other religions should be allowed to exist in Sri Lanka.

The LTTE quickly issued a statement condemning the actions of the Sri Lankan State claiming that the government has let lose its armed forces into this sacred area to carry out indiscriminate military attacks and, by doing so, the Sri Lankan State has disregarded international customary laws and UN Conventions relating to safeguards of holy religious places from military attacks.

The Sri Lankan civil war has already massacred many Hindus and Muslims, desecrated their icons and wiped out many temples during the three-decade-old conflict. Now, "Our Lady of Madhu" has also fallen victim. Although, the Madhu Church provided shelter to around 36,000 refugees in 1990, more than 30 civilians including children and women were killed inside the Madhu Church hall when the SLA entered the church complex with tanks in 1998. Further, 18 civilians, including children, were killed when the SLA carried out a claymore attack on a bus traveling inside the church complex in February. These are clear examples that the violence on the island not only targets civilians, but also establishments of faith - in direct violation of UN Conventions, yet the UN turns a blind eye. It appears that it is up to the powerful Vatican to intervene and solve the crisis. Catholics are yearning for the day when "Our Lady of Madhu" will return to her home, bringing with her permanent peace and freedom and dignity for, everyone on the island.

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Source: The Island (April 9, 2008) & The Morning Leader (April 9, 2009)