Page last updated at 14:15 GMT, Tuesday, 8 April 2008 15:15 UK

Tamil Tigers appeal over shrine

By Frances Harrison
BBC News

The shrine at Madhu
The Madhu shrine is a rare symbol of ethnic unity in Sri Lanka

Sri Lankan rebels have asked Norwegian peace brokers to pressurise the government to end violence near the country's most revered Catholic shrine.

The rebels say the army has been shelling the church compound in Madhu in Tamil Tiger-controlled territory near the frontline in the fighting.

But the army blames the Tigers for taking up positions in the area.

A statue of the Virgin Mary, which is said to have miraculous properties, was removed for its safety last week.

It is the first time in decades of civil war that the statue has been moved from the site - a sign of how bad things have got.

Rare symbol of unity

The Madhu church is revered by Sri Lankans of all religions, although it is a Catholic shrine.

Buddhists, Hindus and Protestants all visit the area in their tens of thousands on pilgrimage - when there is peace.

It is also a rare symbol of ethnic unity, cutting across differences between Sinhalese and Tamils.

Priest beside the statue of the virgin Mary at Madhu shrine
The statue of the Virgin Mary was removed from the shrine last week

The faithful believe that the statue of the Virgin Mary, known as Our Lady of Madhu, has healing and protective properties.

The soil of the compound is supposed to cure poisonous snake bites.

Designated a peace zone, Madhu Church has often sheltered refugees.

More than 20,000 civilians were sheltering in the Madhu area, but as the fighting worsened recently they fled further north, and for the first time the statue of Our Lady of Madhu also had to leave the church.

The Tigers have now written to Norway's International Development Minister Erik Solheim, who was the top peace envoy in Norwegian-backed talks that failed.

The rebels complained that the Sri Lankan military has fired multi-barrel rocket launchers, artillery and mortar against the holy site for the last few weeks.

The Tigers say one of the churches in the compound has already been damaged.

But the Sri Lankan army has blamed the Tigers - saying they placed mortar guns around the church and fired at them.

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific