Katchatheevu: Indian and Sri Lankan Tamil Catholics have voiced concern over the introduction of Sinhala Mass during an annual festival on an island shrine.
More than 2,000 pilgrims from India and 4,000 from Sri Lanka attended the February 23-24 festival of Katchatheevu St Anthony’s Church on the 1.15 square kilometer island in the Palk Strait that separates the two countries.
The festival included adoration of the cross, the way of the cross and other prayers organized by Catholic dioceses of both the countries. Indian fishermen had brought the flagpole to the church.
What has upset Tamils from both the countries was the introduction of Mass in Sinhala, the national language of Sri Lanka, on the second day of the festival.
While the Indian and Sri Lankan Tamils reached the island on the first day, most Sinhalese came on the second day.
The Tamils says they fear the Sinhala Mass might lead to doing away with the Mass in Tamil in the future.
“The Sri Lankan government is gradually intervening in our traditional rights. While the church belongs to the Tamils who have been conducting Mass in Tamil for years, the Sri Lankan government is unnecessarily introducing a Mass in Sinhalese. We fear that the Mass in Tamil may be removed in the future. Our past experiences after the killing of Prabhakaran, is making us think like this,” said K Stella of Neduntheevu.
Prabhakaran was the leader of Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam that waged a secessionist war for an independent nation for Tamils in Sri Lanka.
No pilgrim from India had participated in the festival last year after the Sri Lankan Navy killed Britjo, an Indian fisherman.
While there was an expectation that about 6,000 pilgrims from Tamil Nadu would participate in the festival this year, only about 2,000 eventually did.
Permission for only 62 mechanized boats, denial of permission for country boats to transport pilgrims, and introduction of strict rules for the pilgrimage are being perceived as a barrier for pilgrims from India.
Indian High Commission Consulate Natarajan, Bishop Gnanapragasam of Jaffna, Bishop Raymond Wickramasinghe of Galle, and the parish priest of Neduntheevu Emil Paul, were present at the event.
After attending a Mass at the St Antony’s Church on February 24, Jayantha De Silva, Commander, Northern Naval Area, told media persons that the Indian fishermen’s use of bottom-trawlers, which kills rare sea animals and other aquatic resources, was the biggest concern for Sri Lankan government.
However, the pilgrims said they could see some of the Sri Lankan fishermen using bottom-trawlers around Katchatheevu. When Express asked De Silva about this, he replied that he was not the concerned authority to answer this query. He also refused to comment on the bill to be enacted in the island country to increase the penalty for foreign fishing vessels entering Sri Lankan waters.
De Silva said the Sri Lankan Navy was not crossing the International Maritime Boundary Line to attack Indian fishermen and that the attacks were not intentional. He further said that the Sri Lankan Navy had been making all the arrangements for pilgrims at Katchatheevu for the past three months.
The only religious structure on Katchatheevu is St. Antony’s shrine which is declared holy place by governments of both countries. It was built by an Indian Catholic (Tamil) Srinivasa Padaiyachi more than a century ago.
The church festival was traditionally for three days. Priests from both countries conduct Mass and car procession. As many as 35 country boats and 106 mechanized boats ferry the pilgrims, mostly from Rameswaram.
Palk Strait, named after Robert Palk, governor of Madras during 1755–1763, connects the Bay of Bengal in the northeast with the Palk Bay in the southwest. A strait is a narrow passage of water connecting two large bodies such as seas and oceans. The Palk strait is 53 to 82 km wide. Several rivers flow into it, including the Vaigai River of Tamil Nadu.
Katchatheevu, which is now administered by Sri Lanka, was a territory claimed by India until 1976. The island is located between Neduntheevu of Sri Lanka and Rameswaram of India. It has been traditionally used by fishermen from both countries.
The island originated from a volcanic eruption that occurred in the 14th century and was part of Ramnad kingdom of Tamil Nadu.