COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (ChurchMilitant.com) - The Sri Lankan government is giving official recognition to a historic Catholic shrine.
On Oct. 29, Sri Lankan president Maithripala Sirisena signed a document creating a "sacred area" surrounding the Shrine of Our Lady of Madhu — one of Sri Lanka's oldest Christian places of worship.
Bishop Fernando told AsiaNews, "We are grateful to President Sirisena, his office and the relevant government departments for making this possible."
In like manner, Auxiliary Bishop J. D. Anthony of the Colombo archdiocese said the presidential decree "will help preserve the sacredness of the place without outside intrusion."
"For this reason," Bp. Anthony added, "we welcome the decision to protect the shrine and its surrounding area."
The president's decree sets aside 300 acres for the shrine and its facilities. It also establishes a "protected area" of about 5,000 acres in the forested region around the shrine.
The Marian shrine in northwestern Sri Lanka dates back hundreds of years.
In the 16th century, some persecuted Catholics in Sri Lanka fled into the jungle and built a small shrine in honor of the Blessed Mother. It was made into a chapel around 1670, and the present church was built on the spot in 1870.
In 1990, the shrine became a place of shelter for thousands of refugees from the Sri Lankan Civil War. The shrine's statue of the Virgin Mary was moved elsewhere in 2008, amid concerns of artillery shelling nearby. The statue of Mary returned to the shrine in 2010 on the Feast of the Assumption.
The Shrine of Our Lady of Madhu is now a well-known pilgrimage spot for Sri Lanka's Catholics. Pope Francis came to the shrine during his visit to Sri Lanka in 2015.
President Sirisena's recognition of the shrine as a "sacred area" comes near the end of his five-year term in office. Though he would be allowed to run for re-election, Sirisena has declined to seek a second term.
Some have accused Sirisena's administration of mishandling the Easter Sunday bombings this year, in which Islamic terrorists targeted three Christian churches and several hotels. More than 250 people died in the coordinated terror attacks and about 500 were wounded.
St. Anthony's Shrine in Colombo and St. Sebastian's Church in Negombo were bombed, as was a Pentecostal church.
The Easter Sunday bombings drew worldwide media attention. Some news outlets faced criticism for appearing to downplay the fact that the attackers were Islamic terrorists. Another criticism involved the media's use of the term "Easter worshippers" to designate the hundreds of Christians victimized by the attacks.
In the days following the suicide bombings, news broke that government agencies failed to act on advanced warnings about the terror plot.
President Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said they did not know about the warnings until after the attacks. They vowed to investigate and to fire any government officials who received the information but failed to act.
Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith of the Colombo archdiocese slammed the government's failure to act, telling the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation on April 23, "It's absolutely unacceptable behavior on the part of these high officials of the government, including some of the ministry officials."
Recently, a parliamentary committee's investigation into the intelligence failure put the blame on Nilantha Jayawardena, chief of the State Intelligence Service.
The investigation's findings, released in a report last month, suggest that Jayawardena sat on information about Islamic terrorists plotting to attack Christians on Easter Sunday. Allegedly, he received tips about an Easter terror attack more than two weeks in advance but delayed sharing that information with other agencies.
Catholics account for about 6% of Sri Lanka's population, according to government data from 2011. Buddhists are the majority, comprising 70% of the population. Sri Lanka has sizable Hindu and Muslim minorities as well.
A Gallup poll in 2009 found Sri Lanka was one of the most religious countries in the world, with 99% saying that religion was an important part of their daily life.
In July this year, Sri Lankan priest Fr. Prasad Harshan noted that non-Catholics in Sri Lanka were paying more attention to Catholicism in the wake of the Easter Sunday attacks.
"Suddenly, our whole country became aware of the presence of the Catholics and the special nature of their faith," Fr. Harshan observed. "In the past, only 4,000 people watched the cardinal's video messages. Now there are hundreds of thousands who watch."