A Year After Easter Bombings in Sri Lanka, Recovery Still a Work in Progress

A person mourns near the grave of a suicide bombing victim at Sellakanda Catholic cemetery in Negombo, Sri Lanka, April 23, 2019.  (Photo: CNS/Athit Perawongmetha, Reuters)

By Elise Ann Allen

ROME — 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,” Cardinal Ranjith 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 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,” Cardinal 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.

Cardinal 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 Cardinal 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 religious.

“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 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, Cardinal 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.”

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