Tens of thousands gather at Sri Lanka’s Catholic shrine

By Xinhua,

Colombo: Over 400,000 devotees have gathered in Sri Lanka’s northern Mannar district Saturday to participate in an annual religious festival, military officials said.

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The festivities at the Madhu Church, the holiest shrine for the island’s Catholic minority, ends Sunday.

This was the first large gathering at the church since government troops liberated the northern and eastern provinces from the control of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

Its location in the heart of the former conflict zone saw the centuries old church coming under extensive shelling blamed on both sides to the conflict.

“We have provided ample security for pilgrims around the area,” military spokesman Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara said.

Though it was declared a peace zone during the festival held there in August every year, the area was never completely safe.

But with the military’s complete crushing of the rebels last May, this was the first year in more than three decades that complete peace had prevailed in the area.

The ritual of parading of the Holy Mary statue is to take place Sunday, signaling the end of the festivities.