“THE PEOPLE HERE are good, but the government is bad.” This is the opinion of a Buddhist taxi driver. It’s a view is one widely held in Sri Lanka today. Ever since it became known that authorities had been warned by India’s secret service about the planned terrorist attacks that struck the country on Easter Sunday, criticism of the government has been intense.
Feared revenge attacks did not materialize – not least because Cardinal Malcom Ranjith of Colombo hastened to the scene of the bombings and urged traumatized Catholics to renounce any form of reprisal.
Altogether some 300 people died. Not even the body parts have all been accurately identified, nor are all the critically injured even out of danger yet. The carefully planned bombing campaign clearly targeted Christians, but the attacks claimed the lives of Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims as well. That’s because St. Anthony Shrine, the church hit in Colombo, is visited by members of all faiths. The shrine is particularly attractive to families of mixed religion and to those contemplating baptism.
For example, 38-year-old Sayana, a Buddhist, has been interested in Christianity ever since she attended Catholic school. She had come to St Anthony’s shrine early in the morning of Easter Sunday. She was just lighting a candle when the suicide bomber detonated his bomb. Fortunately, there was a massive column between her and the attacker. She survived with no more than damage to her hearing. But 54 people were killed.
Maiar Mar also had a terrifying experience. Heavily pregnant, Mariar Mar was trampled by people fleeing in their panic. For many hours afterwards she lived in fear for the life of the child within her. Fortunately, her baby survived, but her sister-in-law did not.
Velu Ranjithkumar, a Hindu, lost his Catholic wife in the attack, while a young Hindu family lost their 28-year-old father who, after a long fast, had gone to visit St Anthony’s shrine. Another young woman, a former Hindu who had converted two years earlier, lost her Catholic husband and is now alone with her little baby.
Rizwan Manju and Mohamed Yaseen lost their 15-year-old son in the attack on the church. “Our Imam came to the funeral,” says the Muslim father, who frequently accompanies his Catholic wife to church, though he himself has no intention of converting.
22-year-old Medha and her 19-year-old brother Imash also died in St Anthony’s church. Their father is Buddhist, their mother Catholic. Tearfully, she shows us two handcrafted crosses that were made by her children. She no longer has any trust in politicians. But she tells us that she has had frequent visits from priests and women religious to comfort her in her grief. Like so many other victims and relatives, she has heard many promises from the government, but she only received practical, financial support from the Catholic Church.
Caritas has been providing emergency medical aid, paying also for medical treatment and care of the newly orphaned—regardless of religious background. Teams of priests are offering spiritual and psychological support to the victims. Many of these victims in fact find it easier to open up to others, outside their own homes. This is one of the reasons for the success of the Church-run Emmaus Center in Negombo, the community where some 115 people died in the bombing of St. Sebastian’s Church. At the center, Kamilla and Thomas de Silva put victims in touch with therapists and offer spiritual counselling sessions, in addition to spending many hours with victims, sitting silently and praying in the adoration chapel.
What Sri Lankan Buddhists admire above all is the fact that there were no reprisals or revenge attacks, that, instead, Catholics have responded peacefully, despite the terrible trauma they have suffered. “Let us bring our sufferings to the foot of the Cross, to the Eucharist. We have to forgive!” These are the words of Father Claude Nonis, who works with traumatized victims, along with 80 psychological counsellors. Father Jude Raj Fernando, the administrator of St Anthony’s shrine, adds: “Our God is not a God of revenge, but of love and mercy.”