Reid Shelton Fernando, Colombo
Updated: May 07, 2019 04:18 AM GMT
Archbishop Malcolm Ranjith prays during a private Mass at the Archbishop's house church in Colombo on May 5. Public Masses were cancelled due to security concerns following the Easter Sunday terrorist attacks in Colombo and Negombo. (Photo by Ishara S. Kodikara/AFP)
The aftermath of the terrorist attacks on churches and hotels on Easter Sunday in Sri Lanka has given the Catholic Church and Christians of all shades a chance to shine in terms of their response to the tragedy.
Colombo Archbishop Malcolm Ranjith showed himself to be a Good Shepherd, following the example of Jesus and flashing his strong leadership qualities.
He condemned the bombings and visited two of the targeted sites, while issuing statement after statement calling for calm and urging people not to seek vengeance; rather, he said, they should try to forgive the terrorists and their supporters.
Most non-Christians praised this attitude from those who bore the brunt of the catastrophe.
Cardinal Ranjith also won praise from the media and MPs, when they met in parliament to discuss the terrorist attack. He set a brilliant example for political, civil and religious leaders to emulate.
It was a triumph of non-violence and love of humanity; a victory not only for the people of Sri Lanka, but for all victims of terrorist violence.
In this sad episode, the country's leadership failed to take the necessary pre-emptive steps, despite information and warnings being made available to some officials before the attacks were carried out. This is something Cardinal Ranjith also took issue with.
It may be due to the lackadaisical attitude of these officials. This was a preventable catastrophe that was not taken seriously by the people who potentially had the power to stop it.
Some tried to backpedal by claiming they did not receive the warnings. Lately, however, some of these leaders have accepted responsibility for their lack of action.
As I reflect on this, it is not my role to blame anyone, or to attempt a political analysis of the massacre of those innocent civilians and foreign tourists who had come to enjoy the beauty of this country.
As more days pass in the wake of the tragedy, more information is slowly coming to light regarding the true perpetrators who planned this wide-scale destruction.
Even though some if not all of the local agents have been identified, the underlying cause of such extremism has yet to be tackled.
While religious differences have been blamed, the attacks may have had an international agenda.
Their roots may even trace back to Sri Lanka's civil war, which ended in 2009 when the military crushed the last remnants of the Tamil Tigers seeking a separate state and autonomy.
In 2010, the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission was set up, with a report including a set of recommendations handed to the government.
However, these suggestions were largely ignored by that administration, as well as the next government that replaced it in 2015.
The Catholic Church also failed to take the report seriously enough, even though the commissioners provided them with ample evidence to back up their findings and proposals.
If those recommendations had been implemented, I suspect the latest carnage could have been prevented.
Even when the late Venerable Sobhitha Thera took a stand for change to fight corruption, the Church leadership was silent.
In December 2013, the Catholic bishops' conference issued a pastoral letter to promote national reconciliation. The letter highlighted how corruption was rampant and raised the notion of changing the constitution, an idea supported by the independent commissions.
Year later, when the presidential elections were called prematurely, the Church leadership again fell silent.
Immediately after the elections in January 2015 there was a change of president and a new government was put in place.
That same month, Sri Lanka received its third papal visit. Pope Francis made no fewer than five speeches relating to the country's future. It seemed he had been properly advised to deliver such prophetic utterances.
He spoke positively of the new president, who showed in the following years he was either unable or unwilling to live up to such praise and ideals.
After 2015, the Bishops' Conference of Sri Lanka again turned a cold shoulder to many pressing issues, except abortion and the illegal drugs menace. There was no concerted effort to speak out about human rights or reconciliation. Those issues were simply not on the agenda. The plight of the plantation workers was also ignored, while the Church continued to accept their monthly contributions.
It is lamentable that the full content of that pastoral letter written six years ago was not applied to support the welfare of the country.
It is also unfortunate that there were leadership changes among the ranks of bishops, with some of those who had the courage to speak up on behalf of minorities in the country, and the problems they face, removed.
If things had been done differently, perhaps certain undesirable actors in society could have been detected and acted upon.
If more members of the Church had focused their energy on eradicating poverty and seeking equal treatment for all, things may have turned out quite differently.
The carnival atmosphere that arose at the end of the civil war caused pain to those who had been defeated. Minority groups were also indirectly persecuted.
The Church also had its own problems to contend with, including fundamentalist Christian denominations. Some Catholics even seemed happy to see certain Christian groups come under attack; others refused to enter into discussions with other churches.
While we congratulate the Church leadership for fostering more interreligious dialogue, such moves have generally been restricted to “upper management.” Few made such overtures at lower levels, not considering such olive leaves or ecumenism part of their mission.
Even if some clergy were open to having talks with Buddhist Monks and Hindu leaders, no one seemed interested in approaching representatives of Islam or building healthier relationships with Islamic scholars or imams.
One of the challenges for Christians now is to arrange for experts to study about Islam and see what positive lessons can be taken from their doctrines.
Furthermore, what is happening in the Universal Church has hardly been spoken about in the open. Clericalism in the local Church, abuse of power, and other transgressions are being swept under the carpet.
However, the problems facing Sri Lankan society need to be confronted, and issues relating to national reconciliation dealt with swiftly.
One of the negative results of the Easter bombings is that refugees and asylum seekers from South Asian countries like Pakistan have been ousted from their rented houses as landlords cave to pressure from angry local communities who are out for blood in the wake of the attacks.
One of the negative results of the Easter bombings was that refugees and asylum seekers from South Asian countries like Pakistan have been ousted from their rented houses, as landlords cave to pressure from angry local communities baying for blood in the wake of the attacks. Many Christians also failed this vulnerable group by also ousting them from their temporary lodgings.
The only agency that has consistently maintained its support for these innocent victims, whose only “crime” was being Muslim, is UNICEF.
Is this really a Christian response?
Finally, we Catholics need to work hand in hand with other Christian denominations, and even offer a friendly hand to fundamentalist Christians without dismissing them.
Father Reid Shelton Fernando is a prominent human rights defender. He was a university lecturer and former chaplain of the archdiocese's YCW and CWM movements. He is well known in Sri Lanka for his writings and commentaries on social and political issues.
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