Madhu Feast 2009: Another opportunity or obstacle for peace and reconciliation?http://www.groundviews.org/2009/08/12/madhu-feast-2009/
August 12, 2009
“We used to live very close to the Madhu Shrine and we long to go and pray at the feat of Our Lady of Madhu as we used to. But we are prisoners in this camp, and not allowed to go out freely” is what a father of two children, the youngest of whom is an infant of about one month, told me, when I met the family at the Sirukkandal camp, in Mannar last week. This family is from Pandivirichan, the parish adjoining Madhu Shrine. Hundreds of Tamils, including infants, pregnant mothers are being detained in this camp, some for more than a year. Thousands more are detained in other camps situated in the Diocese of Mannar, where the Madhu Shrine is located.
I also heard of a plea by a Tamil family detained at Menik Far. The appeal was sent to the Bishop of Mannar. I’m not sure why the appeal was not made to the Government and security forces, who are the ones holding these peoples captive. Maybe because they have more faith in the Bishop than the government!
So far, I have not heard anything indicating that these families will be allowed to go the Madhu Shrine for the celebrations planned this week. But I still hope some arrangement will be made.
Our Lady of Madhu, Sinhalese or Tamil?
Madhu Shrine has always struck me as a venue that manifested peace and harmony amongst Sinhalese and Tamil Catholics, and perhaps even non Catholics. I have visited Madhu Shrine several times. As a young boy as far back as 1982 and as a more conscious adult a few years ago. I have vivid memories of services in both languages, including prayers, hymns and preaching. Sinhalese and Tamil, from the North and South, we had always prayed at the feet of Our Lady of Madhu together and even lived together, in the middle of the jungle with basic facilities, for several days.
I don’t think Our Lady of Madhu was ever seen as mother of Tamils or Sinhalese, or of Northerners or Southerners. She was simply mother to all who went to her in prayer and devotion.
But sadly, this time around, it appears that Our Lady of Madhu will not have the opportunity to have with her, a large number of Tamils from the North, as they remain detained by the Government, without any charges, simply because they happened to be Tamil, and they lived in the areas previously controlled by the LTTE.
A time for celebration or mourning?
It is difficult to imagine any mother celebrating her birthday, anniversary or any other occasion, or that of a child, while another child has died, is sick, injured or facing any other kind of misfortune.
It is difficult for me to imagine Our Lady of Madhu rejoicing at the celebration of her feast this August, when some of her children, mainly Tamils, are mourning their dead relatives, have lost their hands and legs, and are imprisoned in inhumane conditions without any charges for months and years..
In addition to being a sacred shrine for Tamil and Catholics alike, Our Lady of Madhu had played a special role in sheltering and caring for Tamil people affected by the war, be they Christian or Hindus. I have heard from UN and other international relief agencies that Madhu Shrine was one of the best run welfare centres during Sri Lanka’s almost three decade long war. The Madhu refuge was referred to as “Open Relief Centre” in the past, but today, close to Madhu are large camps that are are closed and sealed with barbed wire and access in and out is at the discretion of the Government and security forces, even for family members, media, aid workers, parliamentarians. Amongst those Tamils who want to go to Madhu, but will not be allowed, will be those who had sought refuge in the Madhu Shrine in the past and those from Madhu village and surrounding parishes of the Madhu Shrine.
Comments and questions posed to me last week by friends in the Mannar diocese, including priests and religious, made me recall the warning by the prophets such as Isaiah, Amos and Micah in the Old Testament in the Bible, that prayer, worship, offerings and festivals are unacceptable and meaningless to God “when hands are covered in blood” and what God demands is to help the oppressed and ensure justice. (Ref., Is 1:11-17, Amos 5:21-24, Micah 6:6-8) Jesus teaches us in no uncertain terms that Christians will be judged on how they treat the poor and oppressed “whenever you refused to help one of these least important ones, you refused to help me” (Mathew 25:35-45).
“How can we celebrate the Madhu feast? When so many of our people have been killed, injured, maimed, and forced to live in inhumane conditions, held captive against their will without any charges, and not allowed to go back to their families, villages, including those around Madhu shrine? When 6 Tamil Catholic priests continue to be detained, without any charges, perhaps for the crime of opting to stay back and serve their flock at the height of the war, in extremely difficult and dangerous circumstances?”
I couldn’t find an answer to these and other questions my friends raised, and I still search for answers. I could understand their pain and hurt. Particularly as I know the long held frustration and sadness of Northern Christians and Church leaders that Sinhalese Christians in the South, including Church leaders, often failed to raise their voices against injustices and suffering of Tamils, especially in the last few months of the war in 2009. And not easy to forget is the relative inaction and silence of Southern Sinhalese Catholics as Tamil priests and church workers in the North were killed, disappeared, injured, detained without charges and even churches providing refuge to people escaping violence were attacked.
Hand of friendship from the diocese of Mannar
But a part of me also was also telling that the Madhu feast could still be a stepping stone along a long road to rebuild relationships and reconcile Sinhalese and Tamils, at least Catholics.
Last week, I was in Arippu parish (all of them were displaced on 1st Sept 2007 and were allowed to go back after 21 months in June 2009) in the Mannar diocese. I was touched when I heard that the Parish Priest and several parishioners had gone to Madhu to do shramadana, to clean up the Shrine area in preparations for the feast, even when their own houses, livelihoods and properties are in disarray, destroyed or looted and there is hardly any assistance to help them rebuild their lives.
I saw that the whole diocese of Mannar is involved in caring for tens of thousands of orphaned children, elderly, disabled, seriously injured men, women and children and separated families. Injured people are being hosted and being cared for in the Bishop’s House, parishes, hospitals and other institutions. The Mannar diocese is also involved in feeding and providing assistance tens of thousands of people now being detained in camps. Most of the people I talked to, including the Bishop, priests, religious seemed to have relatives killed, injured or detained. Despite all these, the diocese is doing their best to welcome all pilgrims, including Sinhalese from the South, to their diocese and the Madhu Shrine.
These hands of friendship that the Tamil Catholics in the Diocese of Mannar is extending towards all that want to come to Madhu this August, despite the pain they continue to bear and the overwhelming burdens they face, gave me hope that Madhu feast could still be significant step towards reconciliation.
Towards a meaningful Madhu feast
However, there will also have to be meaningful steps taken by others who are attached to Our Lady of Madhu, especially Sinhalese Catholics in the South.
The jubilations of flag raising, eating kiribath, paying homage to the military etc., was visibly absent in the diocese of Mannar and what I saw instead was grief, sadness and pain everywhere. As Sinhalese Catholics from the South go to our Our Lady of Madhu, I believe it is essential to be sensitive to this reality. Glorifying the war and those who caused untold suffering will not towards reconciliation.
I’m aware that many people, Catholics as well as people of other faiths, have been collecting material aid for those now held captive in camps, and there have been many who have volunteered to serve those held captive in camps, those in hospitals and other locations. However, while such charity and generosity is much needed and appreciated, most of the people now held captive are not beggars, but rather, those who had lived dignified lives as farmers, fisherfolk, government servants, teachers etc. Many have friends and relatives willing to take care of them, in whose houses they will feel at home, and be comfortable, both mentally and physically.
Therefore, to me, the most meaningful way to celebrate the Madhu feast would be to at least now, raise our voices to free the Tamil civilians, who are so close, yet so far from the Madhu Shrine. So far because they are detained behind barbed wire and not allowed to go the few kilometers. And perhaps to raise our voices to find the truth of what happened in the last few months of the war and ensure justice, without letting the Madhu feast be used to hide the immense suffering and pains people in the North had to undergo and are still undergoing.
Will Sinhalese Catholics be content to celebrate the feast of Our Lady of Madhu on their own, or are we ready to try to do our utmost to ensure that our Tamil brothers and sisters now held captive are set free, and will be able to join us to celebrate the Madhu feast as children of Our Lady of Madhu?