Army gives Madhu shrine back to diocese

Colombo, Sri Lanka - The shrine of Our Lady of Madhu has been given back to the diocese of Mannar after the army seized control of the area from the Tamil Tiger rebels. The state television station yesterday showed images of the vicar general, Fr Victor Soosai, who - replying to the request of military leaders - visited the shrine on April 26 together with army personnel. The priest reports that the bombings over the past few weeks have caused serious damage to the church of the Sacred Heart, located to the right of the shrine. But the shrine itself suffered only light damage along its left side and roof.

The commander of the Sri Lankan armed forces, Sarath Fonseka, has immediately asked that the statue of the Virgin, venerated all over the country, "be brought back to the shrine". Following the intensification of fighting, on April 4 the bishop of Mannar, Rayappu Joseph, decided to move the image of the Virgin Mary to the nearby parish of Thevanpitti, for security reasons. Thevanpitti is under the control of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

The same bishop now replies to the authorities: we need a guarantee that Madhu will be declared once and for all a "no war zone", and that the LTTE and the army will cease their military operations at the shrine complex. The same request is contained in the petition signed by 25,000 inhabitants of Mannar, which tomorrow will be delivered to president Mahinda Rajapakse. So far, the defence ministry has spoken only, in a generic way, of a "security zone".

A meeting is expected soon of the episcopal conference of Sri Lanka, to discuss the new situation of the shrine and to organise talks with representatives of Colombo and of the Tigers.