The Horrific Terrors of 21/4: Three Pronouncements

ONE = Ellise Ann Allen: Sri Lanka: One year after the Easter attacks,” Daily News, 23 April 2020, http://www.dailynews.lk/2020/04/23/features/217020/sri-lanka-one-year-after-easter-attacks

On the one-year anniversary of a series of Easter Sunday bombings in Sri Lanka that killed nearly 300 people and injured 500 more, the nation mourned in silence, as the Government continues its investigation and families struggle to move forward.

To mark the anniversary of the April 21 attacks, the Sri Lankan government asked the entire nation to observe two minutes of silence at 8:45 a.m., the time the first bomb went off in St. Anthony’s Catholic Church in Colombo.

According to Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, Archbishop of Colombo, each of Sri Lanka’s different religious communities joined in the moment of silence to commemorate the victims. Catholics who could not attend services due to restrictions surrounding the COVID-19 coronavirus prayed at home and lit a candle in honor of the dead.

Sri Lanka’s Christian community, he said, are generally doing well and are “satisfied with what’s happening” in terms of assistance from the Archdiocese and the Government’s ongoing inquiry into who was behind the deadly attacks.

“Of course, we cannot take away the trauma of the families who lost their loved ones,” the Cardinal said, noting that there are some families “where they lost almost everyone, leaving them alone, so those kinds of people will require attention continuously in the sense that we have to see to it that they are psychologically settled with what happened.”

“Otherwise it can lead to problems, so we are attending to that right now. A few families have become completely destitute,” Cardinal Ranjith explained, but insisted that overall, Christians are in good spirits despite the trauma they’ve endured.

The 2019 Easter bombings attacked two Catholic churches, a Protestant church, and three hotels. Most of the 259 people murdered were Catholic; in addition to the victims, nine of the perpetrators were killed.

Government investigations have accused two Muslim groups inspired by the Islamic State with planning and orchestrating the attacks.

Around three weeks after the bombings there was an attack on the Islamic community, targeting homes and businesses, which was seen by many as retaliation for the Easter bombings.

With movements restricted due to the coronavirus outbreak, Sri Lankan Christians this year spent Easter in quarantine, watching Holy Week and Easter liturgies live on television and social media. Events organized by the Archdiocese of Colombo from April 17-21 to mark the one-year anniversary of the attacks, including Masses and prayer vigils, were cancelled due to the pandemic, meaning the dead were silently remembered behind closed doors.

However, Cardinal Ranjith said other religious communities, particularly Buddhist temples, rang their bells to honor the dead, in addition to joining in the moment of silence.

“I think everybody else also (observed it),” he said, adding that at least at the level of the hierarchy, the attacks have not had any “adverse effects” on interreligious relations in Sri Lanka.

In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, which became a major component of the presidential elections last year, the Sri Lankan Government declared a state of emergency and launched investigations into the blasts, one via a presidential panel and the other by a Parliamentary Select Committee. The Government of then-President Maithripala Sirisena fell under intense public scrutiny for disregarding specific intelligence before the bombings indicating that an attack would take place.

Current Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who was elected in November 2019, also set up an independent commission to find the culprits and any who were involved in the attacks.

“They are investigating, and they are questioning different people, and they claim that there are some other people they have discovered, so they want to get all the facts,” Cardinal Ranjith said, speaking of the inquiry’s progress.

Christians, he said, are not impatient with the progress of the investigation, but what they are concerned about is that history as it applies to similar situations will repeat itself.

“All along the history of this country, when such events happen, very often no proper inquiries were conducted, and after some time everybody forgot about these things,” Ranjith said. “Therefore, no proper justice was done or given to the people affected by these bomb blasts and other things in the past.”

“So, our people expect the Government and the other authorities to move forward and discover who was really behind this attack,” he said, insisting that he will continue to encourage the investigation and push political leaders to make more progress.

For those who survived the bombings, life continues to be a struggle, particularly for those who are now alone after losing their entire family; those who were injured and are now unable to work, and those who have now lost their homes because the sole breadwinner in their families was killed.

The Archdiocese, Cardinal Ranjith said, has for the past 12 months been collecting donations both at the local level and overseas for relief efforts targeting both immediate and long-term needs.

Among the programs the Archdiocese is sponsoring is a self-employment project for families “who have been rendered destitute” because they are unable to work and earn money. They are also building houses for families forced to leave their homes because they could no longer pay rent because the family provider was among the casualties.

Ranjith said there are also several people who were injured that need ongoing treatment, which can be expensive, so the Archdiocese is also helping these people to pay their expenses.

Catholic charitable organization Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) has also been providing psychological support to children, families and couples traumatized as a result of the attacks.

Speaking to Crux, Veronique Vogel, ACN’s representative for Sri Lanka, said the organization initially offered to help rebuild the churches that had been destroyed in the bombings, but were told by Ranjith that they had raised enough funds for the reconstruction, largely thanks to the Sri Lankan diaspora, and that the biggest need was counseling for the people still in shock.

ACN then launched the three-year Psych-social Assistance to Families project, which in addition to one-on-one counseling, also offers retreats where people can pray and “talk about what they have seen.”

The most important part of rebuilding is “to reconstruct after this terrible event and reconstruct as a human being, but also as a person of faith,” she said, adding that this goes for laity as well as priests and lay persons.

“In Negombo and Colombo, where the bombs went off in the churches, immediately priests and sisters came on the spot and helped with what they could,” either comforting people who lost loved ones, assisting the injured and helping police to carry bodies, Vogel said.

Another major point ACN is trying to get across in the project is to avoid prejudice against Muslims. There should be “no separation between Muslims and other religions, because Sri Lanka has had so many problems,” Vogel said, “so it’s important that people can find reconciliation and forgiveness to work together again.”

Around 6-7 weeks ago ACN was asked to help with another 3-year project focused on crisis training priests, religious and lay leaders. The idea, Vogel said, is to teach ecclesial leaders “how to face tragic situations and how to respond to them” through retreats reflecting on what happened during the Easter bombings, how to react if another similar tragedy happens, and how to be efficient but also to protect themselves emotionally.

The organization has also brought Sri Lankan priests to the United States and the United Kingdom to speak about what happened in order to give a voice to the victims and help benefactors understand what is happening on the ground.

In her experience, Vogel said the people’s faith has not been shaken as a result of their trauma, but they have come out stronger.

“People are very confident in God,” she said, noting that churches had been closed after the bombings for fear of other attacks, but once churches were opened again, Catholics immediately “wanted to come back. They wanted to present their sorrows, their fear, their hope to God.”

Once the country’s coronavirus lockdown is over, a new chapel dedicated to the martyrs in St. Sebastian’s Church in Negombo, one of the three churches bombed last year, will be consecrated with a special Mass for victims and their families.

“People are slowly seeing life again, normal life,” Vogel said, adding that in her view, the Government’s initiatives on the anniversary have helped Christians to feel that they are not alone.

Going forward, Ranjith said Catholics will continue to speak out against fundamentalism and demand justice, insisting that the investigations do not become a political issue, but focus on finding those responsible. He said a next step, at both the political and ecclesial level, “is to ensure that this kind of extremism is controlled, and that because of religious fanaticism we don’t kill each other. That is not a very sane policy.”

“We should not be fighting with each other with arms and dangerous attacks, because that’s not the way to go about it. We should try to create more understanding among the different communities living here and to ensure that there is greater collaboration and unity among people,” he said.

Cardinal Ranjith said he believes fostering this sense of understanding is one of the primary ways that political and religious leaders can prevent extremism from taking root, particularly among young people.

“We have to launch that dialogue,” he said, noting that religious leaders have long talked about the need to get serious about this discussion. “Now we’ll have to get down to some concrete steps whereby we insist on working together without thinking in little islands, thinking about others more than about ourselves, and then that transformation will take place.”

 TWO = Jehan Perera: “Speaking up for the dead who cannot demand justice,” Island, 21 April 2020

A year ago on April 21 on Easter Sunday the country’s peaceful life for ten years since the war’s end, free from large scale terror attacks, came to an abrupt end. The people who went to the three churches and three hotels that Easter morning were subjected to simultaneous suicide bomb attacks would not have had the slightest inkling of the terrible fate that was going to befall them. At 9 am the six synchronized attacks took place and took the lives of over 250 hapless men, women and children and injured more than 500. The puzzle then, and which remains to this day, was the motivation for the attacks and who was behind them. Malcom Cardinal Ranjith, whose diocese suffered the heaviest casualties, has been the most dogged of the country’s leadership in pursuing this line of inquiry.

The dead have no voice to demand justice, so it is the duty of the living to seek the truth. This is one of the reasons for the importance given worldwide to truth commissions to investigate controversial events of the past. One of the government’s commitments to the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva in 2015 was to appoint a truth commission to ascertain the truth of what had happened during the war. Credible truth commissions are usually led by people whose integrity is very high and have had a track record of professionalism and non-partisan service to the community. In South African the chairperson of the truth commission was Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

The official inquiries into the Easter bombings so far have been unconvincing. Several weeks after the attacks the government arrested the Inspector General of Police, Pujith Jayasundera and the Defense Secretary, Hemasiri Fernando on the grounds of dereliction of duty. Both of them gave evidence that they had either been kept out of the loop at the highest levels or their advice had been disregarded. Both these senior public officials who were at the peak of their respective careers were incarcerated for months in prison. The parliamentary committee of inquiry was stymied by the fact that the president and prime minister were on opposing sides which made the inquiries appear to be politicized ones.

POLITICAL EMBARRASMENT

The Easter attacks have been an embarrassment to the political leadership of the country which may be why the search for justice for the victims appears to have been a desultory one. There was reliable information prior to the attacks to suggest that a wide swathe of the country’s political leadership on both sides of the political divide knew about the possibility of danger. A senior government minister said that his father, sick in hospital, had warned him not to go to church as there was a warning about an impending attack on churches. There were media reports that the intelligence services of friendly countries, including both India and the United States, had warned the government about the impending attacks and even the time and place of the attacks. The puzzle is why were these warnings ignored?

Cardinal Ranjith’s dogged determination to ensure that the truth be found may have its origins in the belief that the Christian worshipers were made scapegoats for a deviant political agenda. The perpetrators were Muslim, the victims were primarily Christian. There has been no history of ill will or conflict between Muslims and Christians in Sri Lanka whatever may be the situation in the international arena. The Easter bombings were followed nearly a month later by instigated attacks in some parts of the country, hate speech and discriminatory practices against the Muslim community which was deemed to be collectively responsible for the bombings. This first year anniversary of the Easter atrocity is an opportune time to reflect on the dangers of extremism. There is a need to reflect on the extremism that lies within each community and to be on the alert to counter it before it grows to be a monster out of control.

The attempts being made to target communities and make them into enemies needs to be deplored and the government needs to step in and take action against those who seek to turn community against community for their own narrow purposes. One of the key recommendations of the WHO is that countries should be unified in their response to the Covid virus and there should be collaboration across party lines and between communities. The cooperation of all is vitally necessary as it will be difficult to ensure anyone’s security from the virus until all are secure from the virus. WHO has also pointed out that the regulation on the disposal of bodies of victims of the COVID virus may lead to reluctance of families and communities to report COVID virus cases in fear that they may be unable ensure proper funeral or burial rites for their loved ones.

CARDINAL’S LEADERSHIP

With the battle against the COVID virus is becoming more protracted and requiring greater sacrifice than previously anticipated, there is correspondingly greater tensions within society as the curfew gets further extended and reports of new COVID cases are announced. These increasing tensions are reflected in the rise of hate speech that is targeting the Muslim community. This is a continuation of a phenomenon that has been gathering in strength over the past several years and which peaked with the Easter bombing by Islamic extremists.

On the other hand, the experience of civil society at the community level with inter-religious committees at both the district and divisional levels is that much of the charitable work that is being done to support those who are suffering most as a consequence of the curfew are Muslims leaders and businesspersons. Muslims have joined humanitarian relief efforts with almost all mosques around the country distributing provisions and dry rations to needy families in their areas without differences of race or religion. This indicates that the Muslim community is economically empowered to offer such assistance and also that they are making a special effort to reach out to the larger community.

In the coming period Sri Lanka is likely to witness multiple nationwide elections for different tiers of government. The recent arrests of persons said to be involved in the Easter bombings have come in the context of imminent general elections. In the course of his sermon this Easter Sunday, Cardinal Ranjith said he had forgiven the bombers. This statement was not surprising as it is in keeping with Christian teachings. What was more creditable on his part was holding back the Catholics from retaliating in the immediate aftermath of the bombings last year. He spoke against retaliation and did not legitimise it. In these fraught times of Covid, this is the national leadership that the country needs more than ever, that treats all communities as members of one Sri Lankan family.

THREE = Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakse’s Statement: “Easter Sunday carnage could have been prevented if then govt. heeded advance intelligence” .http://www.island.lk/index.php?page_cat=article-details&page=article-details&code_title=221371

“Last year, on Easter Sunday – 21st April 2019, suicide bombings on three Christian churches,as well as three prominent hotels, in Colombo, killed over 250 and injured more than 500 people. Most of the victims were worshipers who had gathered in Churches to celebrate the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. This was the worst terrorist attack, on civilians, ever to take place, not only in Asia, but also anywhere in the world. The Tokyo poison gas attack of 1995, the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995, the London bombings of 2005 and the Mumbai attacks of 2008, which are internationally remembered, were all of a lesser magnitude than the Easter Sunday bombings in Sri Lanka. One victim of the Easter Sunday attacks died recently after battling for life for nearly a year. Some victims are still receiving treatment for their injuries.

“We in Sri Lanka are no strangers to suicide bombings. However, the Easter Sunday bombings differed from what we had experienced during the 30-year war against separatism. The intelligence service of a friendly country had provided advance warning to the then Sri Lankan government of the possible dates and targets of the attacks, and the names, addresses, identity card numbers and even telephone numbers of the terrorists involved. Therefore, this attack could easily have been prevented.

“The Archbishop of Colombo, His Eminence Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith has requested all Catholics to light a lamp in their homes in remembrance of the victims. I wish to request Sri Lankans to remember those who died, were injured, and those who were disabled due to the 2019 Easter Sunday attacks in accordance with their own faiths.

“I wish you the blessings of the Triple Gem. May God Bless you!”

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