The attack on local Christians and Western tourists in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday grieved all people of good will, but especially Catholics around the world on the day we celebrated Jesus’s conquering death and darkness. The tragedy calls us to enter more deeply into the mystery of Eastertide, to reflect on what it means to be an Easter people living in a postmodern age, and how we choose to bear witness to the Truth and beauty that is Jesus Christ in a broken world.
Several weeks have passed since 258 people died in the terrorist bombings of three churches and three luxury hotels. Between 500 to 700 are reported as injured and in need of medical and psycho-social care. It has since come to light that St Mary’s Catholic Church in Dehiwala, a fourth target, was spared as an unrelated robbery the previous evening resulted in police presence on site that Easter morning.
I have vivid childhood memories of visiting the two stricken Catholic churches, St Anthony’s Shrine in Kotchikade and St Sebastian’s in Negombo. I remember the throngs of both Catholics and non-Catholics who flocked to the churches as petitioners. Now these powerful saints are intercessors for Sri Lanka.
The Easter attacks are markedly different from those that characterised Sri Lanka’s 25-year civil war (from 1983 to 2009). The conflict was fuelled by the ethnically driven separatist ambitions of the terrorist group the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Both the majority Sinhalese people and the minority Tamils suffered. Growing up, I recall bombs going off with some regularity, family friends being killed, curfews, and schools and universities closing for weeks at a time. We faced the violence and political turmoil of those days as Sri Lankans. LTTE suicide bombers didn’t discriminate on religious grounds.
This is not the first time that Sri Lanka was attacked on Easter Sunday. On April 5, 1942, the Imperial Japanese Navy launched attacks on British warships and airbases in Colombo, and days later, Trincomalee. Known as the Easter Sunday Raid and sometimes, the Battle of Ceylon, the raid attempted to unsettle the Allies. In those days, the Axis powers represented all that was antithetical to humanity. The terrorist attacks on Sri Lanka this year echo what was at stake in 1942. Terrorism is the new axis of evil.
The Easter attacks are a reminder of the threat of radicalised Islam. Its purpose is to destroy all that Western civilisation represents, including Christian values, and in fact anything that is not radicalised Islam. Security forces uncovered evidence indicating that Buddhist temples were the next targets in Sri Lanka in anticipation of Vesak, the most important Buddhist festival.
Religious persecution is on the rise across the globe, with Christians ranking as the most persecuted religious group. The US Commission on International Religious Freedom monitors and reports on the universal right to freedom of religion and belief abroad, and the dire situations facing people of all religions. Organisations like Aid to the Church in Need and Nasarean.org provide relief to Christians who suffer unspeakable hardships.
In Sri Lanka sound policy, security, functioning governing systems and investments in social infrastructure are essential in order to protect citizens of all faiths, and prevent radicalisation from taking root. The thoughtful leadership of Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, the Archbishop of Colombo, and the responsiveness of organisations like Caritas Sri Lanka to the tragedy, underline the essential role that faith plays in society and the importance of a robust non-governmental sector.
Following the Easter attacks, Cardinal Ranjith closed Catholic parishes and schools across the country, offering televised Sunday Mass instead. A beautiful thing happened: the televised Masses drew a national audience of Catholics, Buddhists, Muslims and Hindus. The cardinal called on Catholics to avoid retaliation and maintain peace, saying: “Differences are beautiful, differences can be good.”
That line resonated with me. My father is a convert to Catholicism from Buddhism, and we lived on an estate surrounded by his seven siblings and their families. My family were the only Catholics in that clan, and I spent a fair share of my childhood explaining (and sometimes defending) our different faith and rituals. Fortunately, we had cricket in common.
Our Catholic tradition of upholding the inviolable dignity and beauty of every human life affords Catholics in Sri Lanka the opportunity of being a voice for truth and peaceful coexistence on the island. Catholics can be a countervailing force against an evil intent on undermining trust and sowing violence, declaring with the conviction of the Resurrection: “Be gone, Satan!”
Marion D Boteju is the corporate secretary and chief of staff of The Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of New York