[ Fr.Sunil De Silva - 05.09.2012 ]

A pilgrimage to churches in Velankanni and Poondi Matha in central Tamil Nadu turned out to be a nightmare for a group of Sri Lankan nationals when this violent groups protested against them at the shrines and later attacked them. The 184-strong group of pilgrims was compelled to cut short their visit and leave India on a special flight of Mihin Lanka on Tuesday night.

Pro-Eelam protesters attacked them on route to Trichy airport. While the police escort ensured that none of them was injured, one of the seven buses was damaged. Panic-stricken pilgrims were brought to the airport by 2.45pm on Tuesday and lodged at the cargo terminal of the airport. At least 50 members of MDMK — the political outfit of Vaiko — led by former MLA A Malarmannan were arrested.

"All of them were made to stay at the cargo terminal of Trichy airport until the flight arrived. They were provided food and other facilities," said Shailesh Kumar Yadav, Trichy city police commissioner.

The group, which included 83 women and 36 children, arrived at Trichy airport from Colombo on Sunday and drove down to Poondi Matha basilica in Thanjavur. They had planned to visit the shrine before leaving for Velankanni near Nagappatinam, where the annual festival at the Velankanni Matha basilica that attracts faithful from all over the world, got underway last week.

However, trouble awaited them at the basilica in form of a 100-member strong mob who demanded that they return to Sri Lanka immediately. But, the protesters dispersed after the police intervened and assured them that the pilgrims would leave the church on Tuesday morning.

His Eminence Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith, the Archbishop of Colombo, condemned harassment a group Sri Lankan pilgrims had suffered at the hands of a mob in Tamil Nadu. His Eminence said, he had decided to request the Tamil Nadu Catholic Church to solve the problem through peaceful discussions. "Any crisis situation could be resolved peacefully", he said adding that he would also advise pilgrims to avoid visiting Tamil Nadu.

The pilgrims left Poondi for Velankanni at 2am on Tuesday in seven vehicles with police escort. Although they were allowed to pray at the shrine, protestors shadowed them everywhere. Anticipating trouble, police stepped up security and made arrangements to escort them to Trichy airport.

"They were sent to Trichy airport by seven vehicles and a police team led by a DSP escorted them. They started their journey around 11am from Velankanni after attending the festival," G Ramar, superintendent of police, Nagappattinam, told TOI.

Security was beefed up at the airport with police and central industrial security force (CISF) screening visitors to prevent protestors from entering the airport premises. But they had lined up all through the route from Nagappattinam to Trichy. The MDMK members were arrested near old Palpannai in Trichy around 1.30pm on Tuesday after they tried to show black flags at the pilgrims. Meanwhile, one of the buses had a puncture, further adding to the confusion.

At Kittur on the outskirts of Trichy, a group of unidentified men pelted stones at the buses. Fortunately, no one was injured. But the protestors took away the key from one of the vehicles forcing the police to shift the passengers to a police van.

"We are yet to identify the attackers. Case will be booked under sections 147 and 148 of IPC and Section 3 of PPD Act," said Yadav, Trichy police commissioner.

"In our 15 years of experience of pilgrimage to Velankanni and Poondi Matha basilicas, it's the first time that we have faced problems. We were unaware of the hostility towards Sinhalese here. Had our government warned us, we would not have taken the pilgrimage," said Selin, a 55-year-old woman from Colombo.

Most pilgrims are from lower middle class families in Puthalam district in Colombo and it was the first overseas trip for many youngsters. They claimed to be unaware of the political situation in Tamil Nadu. But almost all of them said they would never visit Tamil Nadu again. "It is my first trip. I would never come here again," 22 year old Ushanth said.

[ Source - THE TIMES OF INDIA – 05.09.2012