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Catholic leaders urge Sri Lankan Tamils’ release

August 16, 2009

AP – Catholic leaders urge Sri Lankan Tamils’ release

MADHU, Sri Lanka — Sri Lanka’s Roman Catholic leaders called for the release of ethnic Tamils held in military-run displacement camps on Saturday, saying they are confined like prisoners behind barbed wire.

The leaders made the appeal during an annual feast at the island’s holiest Catholic shrine in the former northern war zone. The government lifted a blockade on the Our Lady of Madhu shrine the day before to allow pilgrims to hold their annual feast there, a sign the north was returning to normal after the May defeat of the Tamil Tiger rebels, who fought for 25 years for an independent homeland following decades of marginalization at the hands of governments dominated by the Sinhalese majority.

But while thousands gathered for the feast, the nearby villages stood empty, their residents stuck in displacement camps, among the 300,000 other Tamil civilians who escaped from the war zone.

Despite regaining control of the area 16 months ago, the government says there have been delays in resettling the residents because it is heavily mined.

“There are a lot of pilgrims gathered here from all parts but the people of this area are not here. Where are they? They are all in refugee camps,” said Rev. Thomas Soundaranayagam, the bishop of nearby Jaffna. “These people are behind barbed wire like prisoners and suffer many hardships with this rain.”

Heavy rains began two months ahead of monsoon season in northern Sri Lanka, battering camp residents living in tents and makeshift shelters. Aid workers say water is scarce in the camps and disease spreads quickly.

Some 100,000 people gathered in the area 130 miles (210 kilometers) north of the capital Colombo to take part in the feast on the church grounds, according to the military.

The church is revered by Sri Lanka’s Christians — comprised of both minority Tamils and majority Sinhalese — who make up about 7 percent of the population. Our Lady of Madhu, a statue of the Virgin Mary that stands over the altar inside, is believed to hold miraculous healing powers.

This year’s pilgrims are mostly Sinhalese from the south who arrived in cars, buses and trucks and camped out around the shrine. The church, which was located inside the rebels’ former shadow state in the north, had once attracted as many as half a million pilgrims for the festival, but authorities only allowed 500 to attend last year because of the blockade. The government cited mines as the reason for the restriction.

“We are happy that we were able to come here without any trouble,” said 30-year-old fisherman Ravindra Kumar from the western coastal town of Negombo. “There were many problems before. We are thankful to the soldiers for retaking this area.”

Rev. Malcolm Ranjith, the Archbishop of Colombo, called on the authorities to begin resettling the people.

“This a beautiful occasion but there are some people who have not been able to come here,” he said. “If they had come this feast would have been much more beautiful and an occasion of unity.”

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