FATHER PRASAD Harshan, a priest of the Diocese of Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka, oversees the work of a team of priests whose focus is the spiritual, social and psychological care for survivors of the Easter Sunday bombings. He recently spoke with Aid to the Church in Need:
The Easter terror attacks on three Christian churches in Sri Lanka have wounded the faithful not only physically and psychologically. The tragedy also challenged their faith. How does the Church support them?
Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith [of Colombo] wanted to have missionaries out on the streets, 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 process three years ago. That outreach effort has been a blessing in the wake of the bombings. 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 were 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 about the attacks in advance. The people struggled with their feelings. Here, the cardinal’s appeal for people 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 where these martyrs are memorialized in the north. Those who died on Easter Sunday are martyrs, because they lost their lives for their faith. Through this exposure to the history of the earlier martyrs, we seek to heal the wounds of families. People who were wounded or lost family members in the civil war also speak with them to encourage them and give witness to their faith in God.
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 baptized overnight. There is baptism with water, and there is 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, only 4,000 people watched the Cardinal’s video messages. Now there are hundreds of thousands who watch They want to hear what he thinks. We saw the meaning of Easter! But it began with the torn bodies, with the blood of the martyrs.
How did the leaders of the Islamic religious community in Sri Lanka react to the terror from within their own ranks?
The Muslim authorities recognized that it was a mistake to remain silent about the activities of terrorist groups in their communities. Turns out 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 some of the mosques. That was shocking for us. The Islamic leaders have a duty to interpret the Koran in a peaceful way.