One year later, Christians have forgiven perpetrators of Sri Lanka attack

ON APRIL 21, 2020, Sri Lanka, under lockdown because of COVID-19, will mark the first anniversary of last year’s Easter Sunday suicide bombings. “It’s an event still very much on the minds of Christians,” Father Jude Fernando, parish priest at one of the churches hit, told Aid to the Church in Need (ACN).

“Last year, some misguided young people attacked us. As human beings, we could have responded in a human and self-centered manner,” but Christians have not, affirmed Cardinal Malcom Ranjith, Archbishop of Colombo, nation’s capital, in a moving homily during a televised Easter Mass on April 12. It was almost a year since the April 21, 2019 attacks which, striking three churches and three hotels, claimed the lives of at least 270 people and left over 500 injured.

A cemetery for victims of the Easter 2019 bombings

Today, a year after the attacks, the Christians are moving on and had been returning to the Mass until the COVID-19 pandemic forced a shutdown of churches. “Mass attendance had returned to around 80 percent of normal levels,” said Father Fernando, who serves as rector of the Catholic Shrine of Saint Anthony, in Colombo, where 55 people were killed outright and 138 left wounded, in some cases gravely so. Sri Lankans had been planning to gather on April to mark the anniversary of the attacks. “The Christians were preparing to mark this event, but this will no longer be possible on account of the lockdown,” said the priest. A ceremony will be held nonetheless, in the presence of Cardinal Ranjith and three of his priests. In fact, the lockdown has been a source of reassurance for Christians because, with all gatherings banned, the risk of renewed attacks has diminished.

In any event, this anniversary is an opportunity for the Church to contemplate the path of forgiveness that it has followed throughout the past year. As the cardinal emphasized in his Easter homily, “we have meditated on the teachings of Christ and we have loved them [the attackers]. We have forgiven them and taken pity on them. We have not hated them and we have not returned violence for violence.”

This act of forgiveness was addressed to the perpetrators of the bombings, adherent of the National Thawheed Jamaat (NTJ) the terrorist group linked to ISIS. Father Fernando said: “Last year, the Sunday after the attacks, our seminarians prayed this prayer: ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,’ and throughout the past year, every Sunday, they have repeated these same words… Yes, we can indeed say that we have forgiven the terrorists.” In the same spirit, immediately after the attacks, Cardinal Ranjith publicly called on all the faith communities to forgive one another. It was a bold but necessary initiative in this multifaith and multi-ethnic island nation, where the memory of the civil war, from 1983 to 2009, is still very much alive.

It is nonetheless true that the path of healing is still a long and painful one and that the fear of a new attack remains very much alive. Not all those responsible for the bombing have been identified or captured; justice has not yet run its course, even though 135 individuals have been arrested in connection with the bombing. In March 2020, Cardinal Ranjith did not mince his words in demanding that justice be done.

“We will not hesitate to go out onto the streets to defend the rights of our people,” he declared, expressing serious doubts about the inquiry launched by the president of the republic at the time, Maithripala Sirisena. “The proceedings appear to be overly lacking in transparency,” he said. “Certain elements that should have emerged remain hidden.”

The current head of state, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who was elected in November 2019 after having clearly stated his intention to fight terrorism, has expressed his desire to “accelerate the ongoing inquiries into the attacks.” In February, he appointed a new team of six people to run the investigation. As for Father Jude, he expressed his confidence: “I take a positive attitude towards this, and I think that something good will come out of it; so, I am waiting for justice to be done.”

ACN has been funding the work of 40 trained specialists and counsellors to help bombing victims as well as the training of 300 other specialists who are providing psychological support to some 2000 adults and children.

—Amélie de la Hougue