.- A popular annual festival at a historic Catholic church near the front lines of Sri Lanka’s civil war has been canceled because the government and Tamil rebels will not recognize the area as a peace zone.
The church of Our Lady of Madhu is centuries old and normally houses a revered 400-year-old statue of Mary. Located in the town of Madhu about 130 miles north of Colombo, it attracts hundreds of thousands of pilgrims every August who come to see the statue, which is believed to have miraculous powers.
Church officials said the event has been canceled because of safety concerns, the Associated Press says.
“We do not expect therefore pilgrims this time at Madhu,” Bishop of Mannar Rayappu Joseph said in a statement.
Rebels had controlled the area around Madhu but abandoned it in April during fighting in the region. Priests fled the church during the fighting, returning only on Wednesday after four months’ absence.
The priests have appealed to both the government and the Tamil rebels to avoid combat near the shrine.
In 1999, 44 civilians were killed when the Madhu church was hit by artillery shells. At the time, about 3,500 people had taken refuge in the church to escape nearby fighting, according to the Associated Press.
The Sri Lankan military claimed that ten Tamil rebels and one Sri Lankan soldier were killed in Wednesday fighting, but their report could not be verified.
The Tamil Tiger rebels have fought since 1983 to create an independent homeland for Tamils, an ethnic minority who have reportedly been marginalized by governments controlled by people of the Sinhalese ethnicity. More than 70,000 people have been killed in the conflict.