Many Buddhists on the island also admire the Catholics for their peaceful, non-violent reaction
“The people here are good, but the government is bad”. This was the opinion expressed by one Buddhist taxi driver. And his view is one widely held in Sri Lanka today. Ever since it became public knowledge that the political authorities had already been warned, on 4 April, by India’s Secret Service about the planned terrorist attacks – which three weeks later, on Easter Sunday, claimed the lives of almost 300 people – the sense of outrage and indignation against the government has been intense. And not only among the Catholic victims and their loved ones. Among the Buddhists there has even been a suggestion that Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, the head of the Catholics on the island, should be elected as president, some priests tell us, with a wry smile.
The feared revenge attacks did not materialise – not least because Cardinal Ranjith hastened to the scene of the terror bombings and urged his shaken and traumatised Catholics to renounce any form of reprisal.
Altogether around 300 people died. Not even the body parts have all been accurately identified, or all the victims buried, nor are all the critically injured even out of danger yet. The stories of the survivors are harrowing: Priyantha Jayakody, for example, lives in the mainly Catholic fishing village of Negombo. His wife was murdered by the Islamist suicide bomber on the morning of Easter Sunday, while his 17-year-old son only just survived. In all, the Muslim terrorist who struck in St Sebastian’s church in Negombo took the lives of 115 people.
Sri Lanka: The terror attacks have hurt people of all faiths.
Yet although the carefully planned bombing campaign by the terrorists was clearly targeted against Christians, the terror killings in fact claimed the lives of Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims as well. For the church of St Anthony, in the capital city Colombo, is a national shrine that is visited by members of all faiths. And St Anthony’s shrine is particularly attractive to families of mixed religion and to those contemplating baptism. For example, people like 38-year-old Sayana, a Buddhist, who has been interested in Christianity ever since she attended a Catholic school. After a long fast – a practice also very common among Catholics during Holy Week – she had come to St Anthony’s shrine early in the morning of Easter Sunday. She was just lighting a candle when the suicide bomber detonated his bomb. Fortunately, there was a massive column between her and the terrorist, and she survived with no more than damage to her hearing. But 54 people died in that moment.
Maiar Mar also had a terrifying experience. Heavily pregnant, she was trampled on by people fleeing in their panic. For many hours afterwards she lived in fear for the life of the child within her. Fortunately, her baby survived, but her sister-in-law did not. Velu Ranjithkumar, a Hindu, lost his Catholic wife in the attack, while a young Hindu family lost their 28-year-old father who, after a long fast, had gone to visit St Anthony’s shrine. Another young woman, a former Hindu who had converted two years earlier, lost her Catholic husband and is now alone with her little baby.
Rizwan Manju and Mohamed Yaseen lost their 15-year-old son in the attack on the church. “Our Imam came to the funeral”, explains the Muslim father, who frequently accompanies his Catholic wife to the church, though he himself has no intention of converting.
Sister Remoshini visits them all, translating from Sinhalese or Tamil as the occasion requires and bringing little sweets and treats for the children. Like many other religious sisters and priests, she acts as a bridge, enabling people to access the material, pastoral and psychological support offered by the Church and at the same time – as is immediately evident during her visits to the homes of the victims and victims’ families – offering a strong shoulder on which many weep .
22-year-old Medha and her 19-year-old brother Imash also died in St Anthony’s church on Easter Sunday. Their father is Buddhist, their mother Catholic. Tearfully, she shows us two handcrafted crosses that were made by her children. She no longer has any trust in the politicians. But she tells us that she has had frequent visits from the priests and religious sisters to comfort her in her grief. Like so many other victims and relatives, she has heard many promises from the government, but received no practical, financial support except from the Catholic Church.
Many Buddhists on the island also admire the Catholics for their peaceful, non-violent reaction.
Caritas is providing immediate emergency aid and paying for medical treatment and for the care of the newly orphaned – regardless of religious belief. And teams of priests are also offering spiritual and psychological support to the victims, listening to them in their pain and helping them to overcome their trauma. Many of these victims in fact find it easier to open up to others, outside their own homes. This is one of the reasons for the existence of the Church-run Emmaus Centre in Negombo. Here, married couple Kamilla and Thomas de Silva can put them in touch with qualified therapists and offer spiritual counselling sessions, and they also spend many hours with them, sitting silently and praying in the adoration chapel.
But these are not the only reasons why respect for the Catholic Church in Sri Lanka has risen so greatly among the majority Buddhist population since Easter. What these Buddhists admire above all is the fact that there were no reprisals or revenge attacks but that instead the Catholics have responded peacefully, despite the terrible trauma they have suffered. “Let us bring our sufferings to the foot of the Cross, to the Eucharist. We have to forgive!” So says Father Claude Nonis, who is there to support all the traumatised victims, along with 80 trained psychological counsellors. And Jude Raj Fernando, the administrator of St Anthony’s shrine, adds: “Our God is not a God of revenge, but of love and mercy.”
Father Prasad Harshan supports the victims of the terror attacks in Sri Lanka with his “Faith Animation Team”
An interview by Stephan Baier / Kirche in Not (ACN)
Father Prasad, the terror attacks at Easter in three Christian churches in Sri Lanka have wounded the faithful not only physically and psychologically, but also in their faith. How does the Church support them?
Our Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith wanted to have missionaries on the street, going from parish to parish, from street to street, to listen to the people in their homes, to hear their stories and stand by them in all their struggles of faith. We already started this three years ago. Now, when we learned of this tragedy, it has become a blessing; a blessing for the Church and for the people. We are five priests who are working with the terror victims. We are particularly active in Negombo, where 115 people were murdered and more than 280 injured in a single parish. Everywhere we see black flags of mourning. The people are wounded, physically, mentally and spiritually. We see how the people have been wounded in their faith and in their religious life. In 30 years of civil war, we never had such bomb attacks in churches. The people are asking themselves, why did it happen? And why at Easter?
Did this cause any doubting of faith and distancing from the Church?
At first the people were shocked. How could God have permitted it in His own house? We priests were determined to stay at the people’s side, even though we had no answers to give. We were with them in their homes. We wanted to show them that God is and remains with them. After the shock came anger. Especially when they learned that the government had received warnings in advance. The people had to struggle with their feelings. Here, the Cardinal’s appeal to be guided by faith and not by emotions played a great role.
What is your pastoral work in concrete terms?
We are working a great deal with children, who are scared to come to church or Sunday school again. And also with mothers, to strengthen their faith. 475 years ago, a Hindu king murdered 600 Christians in the north of Sri Lanka. We are taking the families of the victims to the places of memorial to these martyrs in the north. Those who died on Easter Sunday are martyrs, because they lost their lives for their faith. Through this visit to the earlier martyrs, we seek to heal the wounds of the families. People who were wounded or widowed in the civil war also speak with them, encourage them, and give witness to their faith in God.
Father Prasad Harshan.
Many Catholics in Sri Lanka have told me that, after the terror attacks, they have become stronger and more devout than before.
For those who were directly affected, the wounds remain today. But altogether, it was a blessing for the Catholics in our country, because the whole country was baptised overnight. There is baptism with water, and baptism with blood. Suddenly, our whole country became aware of the presence of the Catholics and the special nature of their faith. In the past, some 4,000 people watched the Cardinal’s video message. Now there are hundreds of thousands. They want to see what he thinks. We saw the true meaning of Easter! But it began with the torn bodies, with the blood of the martyrs.
The Buddhists represent 70 per cent of the inhabitants of Sri Lanka. Why have the terrorists not attacked Buddhist temples?
They are the majority in this country, and they also include fighters. We do not know why no Buddhist temples were attacked. It may have to do with the fact that, although the Catholic Church represents a minority in this country, it is the largest religious community in the world. The terrorists want to get the whole world involved.
How have the killings affected relations between Buddhists and Catholics?
The Buddhists started to discuss among themselves how admirable the Catholics were. Why did they not seek revenge? Fortunately, we have a wonderful system in the Catholic Church: the priests listen to the Cardinal, the faithful listen to the priests. Now the Buddhist monks also admire us Catholics, and they treat us with a great deal of sympathy and respect.
How did the leaders of the Islamic religious community in Sri Lanka react to the terror from within their own ranks?
The Muslim authorities recognised that it was their mistake to remain silent about the activities of terrorist groups in their communities. We were not aware of it, but they knew about it. They understood that it is a disaster for the whole country. Not all Muslims are terrorists, but all the suicide bombers were Muslims. Therefore, the Muslims could not deny their share of responsibility. They now have the mission to cleanse themselves internally. When the investigations started, weapons were found in the mosques. That was shocking for us. The Islamic leaders have a duty to interpret the Koran in a peaceful way.
Has international solidarity with the victims in Sri Lanka been noticeable?
International Catholic relief organisations such as Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) have greatly helped us here. We are a minority in the country, but we know that we are part of a larger family. People who have never been to Sri Lanka pray for us and give donations! Thus, the Catholic Church has become a blessing for all the people of Sri Lanka. Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists also died in our churches. An inner transformation has begun, in that the people are looking to the Catholic Church. They begin to understand what it means to live in Christ.
“The attacks have reminded many people of the time when the state of emergency was declared during the civil war. The general public and especially all of the Christians in Sri Lanka are still in a state of shock.” This was the résumé of Veronique Vogel, head of projects in Asia for Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), upon returning from a visit to the country under her oversight to take stock of the situation exactly four weeks after the terrorist attacks on Easter Sunday that killed or injured hundreds of people all over the country.
Sri Lanka: Christians still in a state of shock.
She spoke of palpable tensions throughout the country, recurring unrest and fear. “The security measures throughout Sri Lanka were very strict during our visit; security forces and the military were everywhere. But fear persists, particularly among the Christian population. Everyone is well aware of the fact that more assassins were involved on Easter Sunday than were identified and arrested. Therefore, everyone knows that somewhere out there extremely dangerous people are running around who could attack again at any time.”
The archbishop of the diocese of Colombo, Cardinal Albert Malcolm Ranjith, is now appealing to the public to remain calm and to refrain from carrying out acts of revenge. “During our trip, I repeatedly got the sense that the Christians were thankful for the words of their archbishop and were taking them to heart,” Veronique Vogel reported. Over a period of just a few days, the small delegation from ACN visited mainly the regions around the capital city of Colombo and the neighbouring city of Negombo, where most of the attacks on churches and hotels had taken place. “This trip was arranged so that we could see for ourselves the state of the Catholic parishes and to assure them of our solidarity. After all, the terrorist attacks were specifically targeted at Christians,” Vogel continued. “It is important for us to provide the benefactors of ACN with first-hand information about the situation on site to ensure that we don’t forget to pray for Sri Lanka and we can give the country our support.”
Over the last 15 years, the pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need has invested more than 8 million euros in projects for Sri Lanka.
Veronique Vogel reported that although the churches in the country have been accessible again to the faithful since 21 May, exactly one month after the series of attacks were carried out, many Christians are severely traumatised. “Many told me that they are afraid to enter a church at the moment or feel fear when they hear the bells ring. Saddening testimony of just how stressful the memories of Easter Sunday must be for them.” However, she also discovered that many who had themselves become victims or had lost family members felt that their experiences had strengthened them in their faith. “Since the situation in the country had been comparatively quiet over the last few years, many people are having trouble understanding why they in Sri Lanka had to endure such suffering. But their will to live and faith remain very strong. The Christians and the people in Sri Lanka do not want civil war, but are actively working to maintain lasting peace,” the head of projects in Asia for ACN emphasised.
Veronique Vogel was especially impressed by their visit to a Franciscan convent in Negombo. She explained that the convent is located directly across from the Catholic Church of St. Sebastian. During the attacks, at least 100 people were killed at this location alone. She spoke of how the Franciscans showed them videos of horrible scenes from the day of the attacks and how they had immediately rushed to the scene after the explosions to care for the wounded and help recover the dead. “In spite of these traumatic experiences, they are models of lived charity and have not let terrorism and violence detract them from their faith and their willingness to help others.”
The island nation of Sri Lanka is situated in the Indian Ocean and has about 22 million inhabitants, 70 per cent of these Buddhists, 12.5 per cent Hindus, 9.5 per cent Muslims and 8 per cent Christians. A large number of people were killed or severely wounded during a series of attacks on Easter Sunday, 21 April 2019, that were mainly targeted at three Christian churches and three hotels in the capital city of Colombo, the neighbouring city of Negombo and the east coast city of Batticaloa. The latest figures estimate nationwide casualties of at least 253 dead and about 500 wounded. The authorities have made a local, radical Islamist group and jihadists responsible for the attacks.
Over the last 15 years, the pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need has invested more than 8 million euros in projects for Sri Lanka. Among other projects, these funds were used for the building of Christian facilities, for Mass stipends for priests, for theological education and to ensure the local availability of Christian literature. Following the latest terrorist attacks, ACN is even more strongly committed to strengthening long-term pastoral aid in the country to help heal wounds and bring back hope and confidence to the parishes.