Sri Lankan Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith of Colombo is calling on his country’s government leaders to face up to their responsibility for allowing the deadly Easter Sunday terrorist attacks to take place and for those who were negligent of the threats to be held accountable.
In June 24 comments to the Register during a visit to Rome and Italy, Cardinal Ranjith said about 500 families have been affected by the suicide-bomb attacks on three Sri Lankan churches and other targets in the country, but no one has been brought to justice yet.
The Islamic State terrorist group (ISIS) has claimed ownership of the attacks. The April 21 atrocities left 258 dead and at least 500 injured.
Cardinal Ranjith said 476 children have been “left destitute” because they have lost one or both parents. Many who have lost loved ones “don’t know how to reconcile themselves with that fact and carry on with their lives,” the cardinal said, adding that the archdiocese is offering them counseling.
Cardinal Ranjith, who spoke to the Register immediately after meeting Pope Francis, who gave large cash donations to help the suffering people, also recounted his own traumatic experiences that fateful morning, how the Holy Father was moved to tears after the cardinal showed him a video of what had happened, and how the priority is rebuilding people’s lives.
Your Eminence, what are your reflections now, just over two months since the atrocities?
What happened in Sri Lanka was a real tragedy. The real tragedy comes from the fact that the Indian government informed the responsible people for security as well as the heads of the government about an impending ISIS attack in Colombo aimed at the churches. But having known about it that day, they preferred to ignore it or did not give enough weight to the seriousness of that kind of threat. It makes it even more dramatic because the people are shattered, not only because their loved ones lost their lives or were badly injured and their families have been put into great difficulty, but also because of knowing that these kinds of people have been irresponsible about this matter. This has made the tragedy a double tragedy. The people are completely, I don’t know, lost; and they are completely dissatisfied about the existing power structure in Sri Lanka.
Nobody has been held accountable at all?
Nobody’s being held accountable, and they are always passing the buck onto the other side — “not me, but the other one.” That’s the way they have behaved. In fact, all of them have some responsibility because all of them had been warned and told about it.
You said a few days ago that they’re not tracking down the terrorists. They’re not trying to find them?
No, and our contention is that there should be a thorough inquiry — a serious, official, independent, impartial inquiry, without being affected by individual politics, party politics, orientations and things like that. We need a thorough inquiry as to how it happened, why it happened and who the people are who are behind it — and also why the government preferred to ignore [it]. So all those things must be looked into. It’s a matter of justice, and the people who are affected are asking for it, and the entire public is asking for it, so they can’t ignore them. That is why it is necessary that we have to have an impartial inquiry; but, so far, it is not forthcoming.
You’re getting a lot of donations from people.
Yes, we are. We have a lot of help locally and also overseas. Many organizations have given money to us to impart to these families.
How many remain affected by the tragedy?
We have roughly about 500 families altogether affected; about 200 people are injured. Their medical needs have to be looked into. We have nearly another 300 to 400 people who are traumatized due to the break in the family. Of course, their loved ones are gone, and they don’t know how to reconcile themselves with that fact and carry on with their lives, so we need to give them psychosocial counseling.
We also need to help nearly 476 children who have been left destitute because they lost their parents, either both of them or one parent, who are the breadwinners. We need to help them. Then we have another nearly about 100 families who have been left destitute because their breadwinner died. So we need to help them to survive, to financially to come to a stable situation, and that requires much help; and, finally, we have also some people who are living in rented houses, and now they can’t pay the rent anymore, and we have to find alternate new housing for them. So all these predicaments have to be looked into and tended to, and that’s what is taking our attention right now, while we keep on insisting with the government about the inquiry, about justice and the truth — that we keep on insisting.
Are you concerned there’ll be other attacks?
There are at least quite a number of others who had been trained by this group, who came from Syria. Some of these youngsters, educated, intelligent, rich youngsters, who had gone to Syria by plane, came back, and they started training others. The government came to know about the existence of these camps and about the training that they had received, but did nothing to arrest and stop them.
Do we know why they didn’t do anything?
Because probably some of these people who were arrested were politically connected, and they decided to liberate them and free them without taking action against them. That had gone on before the event, so when the event happened, we were caught unprepared.
So it’s linked to political corruption?
But the churches are open?
The churches were opened initially, but because of news that came to me from security sources that the situation is not stable, that some of these characters are still on the loose, we decided to keep the churches closed without Sunday Mass for about two weeks. But then the people wanted Masses to be held, and, finally, we decided to open the churches and have the Masses in a smaller manner.
There are people checking them as they enter?
Checking, and also ensuring that no bags and packages are brought inside; checking the security before the Masses start. All these things were introduced after these attacks, and under this system the Masses continue.
Are other churches being rebuilt, like the St. Anthony Shrine?
The churches are being rebuilt by the government, especially the minister of housing and construction, who is the son of a former president of Sri Lanka, Mr. [Ranasinghe] Premadasa (1989-1993). He personally took a lot of interest in the [situation], and he has started repairing the churches.
What was it like for you when you heard the news? Were you at Mass when you heard it?
I had finished the Mass, Sunday Mass, and when I got the telephone call saying there was a bomb blast in Kochchikade [the area of St. Anthony’s Shrine] — in that area there are some gangs, and they throw hand grenades at one another, so I thought it was one of those.
But then the priest was crying over the phone, saying he’d lost his people there — lots of dead. Then I knew something was wrong right away, and so I decided to go there, along with my auxiliary bishop. We drove there, and it was mayhem: disorder, bodies, blood, people crying, and some people already inside trying to help them to go to a doctor. All that was utter mayhem. Then they prevented me from going inside. The police said, “There are possibly other bombs inside. Don’t go.” So they were trying to discourage me, and they took steps to send me back in my own car back to the bishop’s house [his residence] with an armed escort. As I was going back, I got a call that another church in Negombo had been attacked and that the situation was worse there than here.
So you went up to Negombo?
I went up there a little bit later. I checked with the police, and the police said, “You can’t come” and I went, but still, even then, bodies were lying all over. They had not removed all the bodies, only the injured ones; but those who were dead, they were keeping the bodies there, so bodies were all over the place.
The aftermath of bomb attacks is horrific.
In St. Anthony’s Church they had collected 12 plastic bags of body parts.
That’s a famous and popular shrine in Colombo. How badly damaged was it? Was it destroyed?
Not completely. The upstairs museum was not affected, but the wing of the church was blasted off because the man tried to enter from the main door, but he could not because there was a big cow there. He couldn’t get inside it, so he tried the side door, and he couldn’t go inside either, so he blasted himself, killing all those people who were on their feet because they had no place for them to sit. They were standing, all of them.
What is the purpose of your trip to Italy?
The Holy Father made two references to this event on Easter Sunday itself here in Rome, and then he sent me a nice letter, also, with his condolences to us, and then he had tried to call me, but we didn’t get to [reach] each other. Because of all of that, I thought, “It is necessary for me to come and brief him about it,” so we produced kind of a DVD on that, and I brought it with me and showed it to him. And he was in tears. He was moved by that. We showed it to him, and then we also briefed him about all of the other details of the attacks and everything. Then he gave me some money. The Holy Father gave his own help to us for the upkeep, for the rebuilding of the lives of the people — not the churches, because we are not going to do any repairs of the churches; that will be done by the government.
Our main target is to help the people to get back to normalcy as fast as they can.
Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.