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Fisherman’s death overshadows island church feast 

By Matters India Reporter

New Delhi: The shooting of an Indian fisherman by the Sri Lankan navy has dampened the annual feast of an island church.

St. Anthony’s Church in Katchatheevu celebrated its feast on March 11 and 12 for the seventh year. Catholics from India and Sri Lanka traditionally attended the feast at the church that was recently renovated by the Sri Lankan Navy.

Many Sri Lankan devotees of Saint Anthony attended the feast, but their Indian counterparts stayed away.

Father L Sagayaraj, the Tamil Nadu coordinator for the Kachchativu St Anthony’s festival, on March 9 asked for postponing the event, but Sri Lanka’s Jaffna diocese that organizes the feast refusing citing reasons beyond its control.

Father Sagayaraj said he asked for postponement because of a growing fishermen’s agitation in Tamil Nadu over the killing of a young Rameswaram fisherman three days earlier.

The protestors wanted the arrest of the Sri Lankan navy man and rejected the compensation offered by the Tamil Nadu government. They insisted that Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj should assure them that the guilty Sri Lankan Navy man is arrested and there will be no more shootings.

The Sri Lankan government has denied the shooting and pointed out that the incident occurred on the Indian side of the Maritime Boundary Line, which the Sri Lankan navy never crosses.

However, the island nation has announced a thorough inquiry based on GPS data that it hopes would prove that no naval vessel was on the Indian side of the line. But the fishermen contend that the bullets recovered were from a military Self-Loading Rifle (SLR).

Meanwhile the Sri Lankan Navy had reportedly made arrangements for 4,991 pilgrims from Tamil Nadu with dinner packets for Saturday evening and breakfast and lunch on Sunday.

Traditionally, the pilgrims from India attended the main Mass at 9 am and sailed back in the afternoon after lunch.

A Sri Lankan Catholic priest involved in organizing the feast told a Sri Lankan TV channel that the Indian pilgrims wanted to come but were prevented by the protesters.

The Sri Lankan navy had renovated and expanded St Anthony’s Chapel. The renovation was executed for the Diocese of Jaffna by the Sri Lankan navy, free of charge. The Navy also helps conduct the festival as per the wishes of the diocese of Jaffna.

On March 10, the Madras High Court Bench in Madurai refused permission for fishermen from Rameswaram to visit the island church by country boats fitted with motors.

The petitioner, J. Brinso Raymond, a lawyer from a fisher family, said not all fishermen could pay 1,300 rupees Father Sagayaraj demanded from each pilgrim.

Additional Advocate General B. Pugalendhi told the court that the country boats are not suitable for travel to the island. Engines with less horsepower would not be possible to complete the travel.

The lawyer also submitted Ramanathapuram Collector’s February 24 letter to the Public Secretary. It said that 3,610 men, 1,118 women, 149 boys and 114 girls were likely to attend the festival.

Consulate general of India to Jaffna A. Natarajan told a Sri Lankan portal that the Tamil Nadu fishermen would not attend the feast since the Indo-Sri Lankan fishermen issue was yet to be resolved,

Demonstrating were fishermen from six districts in Tamil Nadu.

Tamil Nadu opposition leader M. K. Stalin held discussions with the protesters and paid respects to remains of the deceased fisherman kept at the Rameshawaran government hospital. He also asked officials to consider fishermen’s plea to attend church fest if they opt for mechanised boats.

Katchatheevu, administered by Sri Lanka, is an uninhabited island situated on the island nation’s maritime boundary. The 285-acre island was a disputed territory claimed by India until 1976. In 1974 India recognized Sri Lankan ownership of the island on a conditional agreement.

The island is used as fishing grounds fishers from both countries. The Indo-Sri Lankan agreement allows Indian fishermen to fish around Katchatheevu and to dry their nets on the island.

St. Antony’s shrine shares the borders of both countries, and declared holy place by both governments. It holds traditions dating back to more than a century. It was built by Srinivasa Padaiyachi, a rich Catholic fisherman from Tamil Nadu. St. Antony is patron-saint of seafarers.

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