The Christian community, being one of the minority groups of the multi-religious population demographic of Sri Lanka, is quite possibly the least involved in any political and religion-ethnic issues of the country. Hence, it came as a great shock and a betrayal to the Christians when they were directly targeted in a terror attack.
The bombings were carried out during the Easter worship, a day where the number of church-goers was guaranteed to be at the highest. In fact, among the venues attacked was the Shrine of St. Anthony’s Church in Colombo, which served as a gathering point not just for Catholics but for Sri Lankans of different faiths during such celebrations. Similarly, St. Sebastian’s Church is located in Negombo, a suburb well-known for being densely populated with a Christian-majority.
The situation was further aggravated once it was revealed that the radicalized Islamist group National Thowheeth Jama’ath claimed responsibility for the attack. The Christian community that had previously held a neutral stance regarding the communal friction that existed between the Sinhala-Buddhists and the Muslims were now forced to confront the issue as the violence against their own community forced them to draw lines either for or against the Muslims.
However, the reaction of the Christian community to the Easter bombings was promptly handled by Sri Lanka’s leading Roman Catholic Prelate Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, the Archbishop of Colombo. He issued a statement condemning the attack but urged the citizens to “not to take the law into their own hands and to maintain peace and harmony in this country.” This statement prevented what could have been a violent response against the Muslims, as the Christians that displayed fear and paranoia towards the Muslims were exploited by certain Sinhala-Buddhist extremist sects that used the opportunity for hate-mongering and to propagate Islamophobic propaganda.
However, with the appeal made by Cardinal Ranjith, the Christian community remained calm which ensured that the Sinhala-Buddhist extremists could not misuse the situation to their own advantage and re-kindle ethnic violence and bias against the Muslims. Despite being wary of the Muslim community after the attack, the Christians were not hesitant to defend their Muslim acquaintances and condemned only the actions of the responsible Islamist fundamentalists rather than blame Muslims in general. Similarly, when the investigations revealed that the government had received prior warnings of the attack but did not take action, the Christian community displayed a dignified response without resorting to casting blame but expressed their disappointment and lack of faith towards the authorities and the political leaders of the country. While arrests were made and investigations were held in the aftermath of the attack, the Christian community was dissatisfied with the lukewarm response of the government that failed to assure security or assuage the fears of the minority, which inevitably had an impact on the results of the Presidential election held on the same year.
A year after the Easter attack, as the world is facing the COVID-19 pandemic, Christians in Sri Lanka celebrated Easter at home under lockdown. Closed-door Easter services were conducted at the Shrine of St. Anthony’s Church and St. Sebastian’s Church, without congregational participation. This perhaps is another setback for the Christians as they were unable to gather in the church as a single community in commemoration of the lives lost and thereby were unable to reconcile or to gain closure even a year after the tragic attack. However, the television stations broadcasted the Easter Eucharistic worship in all three official languages of Sri Lanka and Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith heading the service, remembered the lives lost, the injured, and those who are grieving after the Easter bombings.
During his sermon, Cardinal Ranjith preached of forgiveness to the attackers in the reflection of Christian faith and thereby claimed that the community is teaching a lesson on forgiveness through example. Nevertheless, the sentiment among Christians is that in terms of politics, the Easter bombings is an issue that was clearly swept under the rug and short-lived in the memory of the leaders of the country who failed to acknowledge the grief and the loss that the community had to undergo a year ago. It displayed the inadequacy of political leaders of Sri Lanka to handle violence directed towards a minority group as lack of sympathy, insensitivity, and finger-pointing became the basis of their response which frustrated those who were affected by the terror attack.
In an overview of the perspective of the Christians in Sri Lanka a year after the Easter attacks, one of the key factors that should be commended is that the guidance of Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith which prevented the country from plunging into a volatile state. Due to the restrained response of Cardinal Ranjith, the Christian community as a whole did not get involved in communal tensions that existed prior to the attack. Therefore, it could be said that Christians while being the most affected community from the Easter attack, were also the ones who responded the least with either violence or recrimination.
On 21 April 2019, terrorists owing allegiance to the Islamic State targeted churches and hotels in Colombo, as people were celebrating the Easter Sunday. More than 250 were killed, and 500 injured.
One year later, the International Peace Research Initiative (IPRI) within the Conflict Resolution and Peace Research Programme (CRPR) at the NIAS looks at the lessons learned, the road ahead, and issues that need to be addressed. The IPRI debate on “One year after the attacks in Sri Lanka” is multi-disciplinary, looking at inter and intra-ethnic relations, policy inputs, security and justice.
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