On April 21, 2020, Sri Lanka, still under lockdown, will mark the first anniversary of last year’s Easter bombings, which killed over 250 people and left around 500 injured. “An event still very much on the minds of Christians”, says Father Jude Fernando, parish priest of one of the churches so gravely affected by the attack. He was speaking to the international Catholic pastoral charity and pontifical foundation ACN.
“Last year some misguided young people attacked us. As human beings, we could have responded in a human and self-centered manner”, said Cardinal Ranjith, the Archbishop of the Sri Lankan capital Colombo, in a moving homily during the televised Easter Mass on 12 April this year. It was almost a year since the attacks of 21 April 2019 which altogether claimed the lives of at least 259 people and left over 500 injured in various towns and cities of the country.
Today, one year on from the attacks, the Christians are moving on and also returning to the churches – to the extent that just before the coronavirus epidemic forced the closure of the churches “Mass attendance had returned to around 80% of normal levels”, according to Father Jude Fernando, 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 21 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”, Father Jude explained. A ceremony will be held nonetheless, in the presence of the Archbishop of Colombo and three of his priests. Paradoxically, the lockdown has been a source of reassurance for the Christians because, with all gatherings banned, the risk of renewed attacks has diminished.
Pardoning the terrorists
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 Archbishop of Colombo 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 courageous act of forgiveness was addressed to the terrorists of the National Thawheed Jamaat (NTJ) the terrorist group linked to Islamic State, which last year detonated bombs in three Christian churches and three luxury hotels in the country, causing absolute carnage. Father Jude Fernando confirmed this act of forgiveness. “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 had 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.
Pardon does not exclude justice
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. All the more so since, almost a year since these events, justice still does not seem to have run its course, even though 135 individuals have been arrested since then. 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 regarding 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 against terrorism, following these attacks, has declared his desire to “accelerate the ongoing inquiries into the attacks”. In February this year, he appointed a new team of six people to run the inquiry. As for Father Jude, he expresses 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 helped generously following the attacks, including funding the work of 40 trained specialists and counselors to help the victims and the training of 300 other specialists who are providing psychological support to around 2000 individuals, both adults, and children.