Desecrating Holy Ground

Modern day wars are not merely fought in the bunkers and trenches of the battlefields. With the advent of 24-hour news feeds into the living rooms of many millions and the readily available internet sources, public perception of a conflict has become as important as the actual fighting taking place on the ground.

It is in this context that the raging battles around the sacred shrine of Madhu should be viewed. If not properly handled, the Sri Lankan Government and its security forces may face a devastating defeat on the propaganda front even though they might be victorious in the battlefield, recapturing a symbolically important piece of real estate.

The LTTE and its news organs are going berserk these days about the Catholic shrine at Madhu coming under artillery fire from the Army. Making matters worse, Mannar Bishop Rayappu Joseph has ordered his priests to flee with the statue of Our Lady of Madhu, arguably the most venerated Catholic statue in the country.

It is but only natural to expect a guerrilla movement like the LTTE to use all means available to gain the upper hand over a more conventional foe. It was clear in the battle of Vakarai that the Tigers were using civilians as human shields, firing their heavy artillery guns from locations just a few hundred metres from the camps that housed the Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs). The advancing military did not have the option of retaliating, knowing the consequences to the civilian population.

On numerous occasions, the Tigers had taken refuge in places of religious worship and even desecrated Holy Ground. The massacre at the sacred Bo tree in Anuradhapura, the Maligawa bombings and the massacre of Muslims at Kattankudy Mosque are only a few such examples. So this sudden concern of the LTTE for the wellbeing of the Madhu Church, even the most ardent follower will admit, is not a sudden awakening to a calling from above.

Yet, it must be stressed that the onus is on the government to ensure that the sacred place of worship is not harmed. To expect the LTTE to abide by the rules of the civilised world would be accepting that it is something more than a terrorist organisation. However, if a democratically-elected government and its security forces are to ignore the norms and ethics of battle, then they will not be any different from the organisation that they call terrorist.

At a time when Sri Lanka is being viewed as a state at war, with only countries like Iran, China and Russia to call its friends, it is of paramount importance that we do not further deteriorate our position in the world by ignoring the rules by which a civilised state is expected to act. It is hoped that the security forces will ensure that Madhu retains its sanctity even if the LTTE is determined to desecrate it. As the Army was the eventual victor in Vakarai and evaded massive worldwide condemnation by minimising civilian deaths, it will be to the long-term advantage of the government and the military to safeguard the Church.

It is one thing to win the battle but it will come to naught if one loses the war. This is what happened to the Americans in Vietnam. Contrary to popular belief, the United States did not get militarily defeated in Vietnam but when popular opinion in the US turned against the war, it signalled the beginning of the most humiliating withdrawal in post World War II history.

It is said that President Lyndon Johnson admitted that the war in Vietnam was lost when trusted newsmen like Walter Cronkite reported from that country that the war could not be won. Thus was the power of media and public opinion. Madhu may not be such a dramatic turning point in this countrys conflict, but if not handled with care, it will most probably have devastating consequences, both locally and internationally.

Madhu Church has remained a beacon of hope for devotees and believers, despite its vulnerable situation, deep in the heart of the Sri Lankan conflict. The Madhu Church feast commands a following of hundreds of thousands every year, many of whom make the arduous and dangerous journey to the north just to visit the shrine and invoke the blessings of the hallowed statue. The Church feast takes place, come rain or shine, war or peace. It is a mutually observed no war zone, a symbol of religious hope and tranquillity in a region ravaged by battle.

Someday, if the war ends and Sri Lanka is at peace, the Madhu Church will be one of greatest stories of the conflict; a place where north met south even at a time when there were ever-growing fissures between the two corners of this island nation. But to become the legend it surely will, Madhu must stand.

It is imperative that both sides see to that not only because it goes against the war time conventions to desecrate places of worship, but also because it is a place of peace as deeply rooted into the national consciousness as the war that has lasted for more than two decades.

It is hoped that sanity prevails in these troubled times and that Our Lady of Madhu will return soon to her abode of worship to guard over her people as she has done for many centuries at this time when they need her most.