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Page last updated at 11:51 GMT, Saturday, 15 August 2009 12:51 UK

Sri Lanka call to free refugees

Catholic parade in Madhu
Sinhalese Catholics turned out in large numbers in Madhu on Saturday

Two of Sri Lanka's most senior Roman Catholic clergy have spoken out against the continued detention of nearly 300,000 Tamil war refugees.

The Archbishop of Colombo and the Bishop of Jaffna were addressing tens of thousands of pilgrims at a shrine close to camps housing the refugees.

Jaffna bishop Thomas Saundaranayagam, himself a Tamil, said the refugees were being held "like prisoners".

The government says they have to be vetted for links to the Tamil Tigers.

Government forces defeated the Tamil Tigers in their last stronghold in the north earlier this year, bringing the country's civil war to an end.

Sri Lanka's Roman Catholics revere the statue of Our Lady of Madhu at the shrine in north-west Sri Lanka and 15 August is a major festival.

This is the first time since 2005 that the government has given permission for Catholics to visit the shrine in large numbers. Until last year the area was controlled by the Tamil Tigers. The warring sides used to make arrangements to allow pilgrims to visit on 15 August.

'Behind barbed wire'

The BBC's Charles Haviland is in Madhu and says well over 100,000 pilgrims have visited the shrine in recent days.

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In his sermon, the Archbishop of Colombo, Malcolm Ranjith from the majority Sinhalese community, said this was a beautiful occasion.

However he said it would have been more so had the people of this area being held in camps been able to come, he said, referring to the lack of Tamils.

Bishop Saundaranayagam said most local people were "confined to camps, behind barbed wire fences, like prisoners".

Father Joe Xavier, who has officiated at this shrine for 15 years through war, ceasefire and peace, estimated that as many as 90% of the devotees this year were Sinhalese people who generally could not visit during the long years of Tamil Tiger control.

He said that many Tamils were being held in camps, while others did not want to come this year.

"When we are talking to them they feel their feelings are being hurt," Father Joe said. "When our brothers and sisters are now in the camp we just cannot come and celebrate the feast here."

The main Menik Farm refugee camp is very close by.

Our correspondent says that although security has been tight for the Madhu festival, President Mahinda Rajapaksa cancelled his planned visit out of security concerns.



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