Sri Lanka shrine praying for pilgrims

MADHU, November 9, 2008 (AFP) – One of Sri Lanka’s holiest Catholic shrines stands idle and neglected — an unlikely victim of a decades-long internal conflict that the government says it is close to winning. Standing two feet (60 centimetres) tall, the 450-year-old pale yellow statue of the Virgin Mary, draped in golden robes, is especially revered by child-less couples desperately wanting offspring.

But, protected in a bullet-proof case at the Ave Maria church in Madhu, deep inside the northern coastal district of Mannar, pilgrims no longer visit, as mainly-Buddhist Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict rages nearby.

“Seeing this place so empty is a terrible tragedy for me,” said Father Emilianuspillai Santhiapillai, the shrine’s administrator, who fled clutching the statue in April, before returning with a handful of others in August.

The thousands who used to visit the cream-coloured church each year and stay in chalets have been replaced by wild monkeys, while birds, stray cattle, dogs and an occasional jungle fowl roam the expansive church garden.

Keeping them company are dozens of heavily armed government troops, but there is barely a single worshipper in sight.

The military seized contr