Sri Lanka president commits to "zone of peace"

In a meeting with Catholic bishops, Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse has accepted a proposal to guarantee safety to pilgrims visiting the nation's most famous Marian shrine in the war torn Madhu district.

AsiaNews reports that Catholics, Buddhists and Hindus, Tamils and Sinhalese, have all welcomed the statement by President Mahinda Rajapakse saying that a "peace zone" would be established around the country's most famous Marian shrine at least for the duration of the main annual celebrations.

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 with some of the country's Catholic bishops.

"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 15 August, the 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.

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.

Marian shrine in Madhu to become 'peace zone' (AsiaNews, 6/6/07)

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Madhu Shrine

Marian shrine freed from militants (12/4/99)

7 Jun 2007