Cardinal’s Pardon to Sri Lanka’s Easter Bombers Garners Little Local Attention

Sri Lankan Catholics told the Register that the cardinal’s act of forgiveness, expressed at Easter Mass on April 12, is only one aspect of the process that is needed to ward off renewed religious violence.

Relatives pay their respects at a graveyard for St. Sebastian's Church bomb blasts victims in Negombo on April 21, 2020, to mark the first anniversary of the attacks.
Relatives pay their respects at a graveyard for St. Sebastian's Church bomb blasts victims in Negombo on April 21, 2020, to mark the first anniversary of the attacks. (photo: Lakruwan Wanniarachchi/AFP/Getty Images)

Some international media ran headlines after Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith of Colombo, Sri Lanka, at Easter Mass on April 12, announced a “pardon” for those who carried out the deadly serial bombings that claimed 259 lives a year ago — most of them at 2019 Easter Mass celebrations in two Sri Lankan Catholic churches.

But more than a week after Cardinal Ranjith announced this act of forgiveness, it has gone largely unreported in local Sri Lankan media.

“Last year, some misguided youths attacked us and we as humans could have given a human and selfish response,” Cardinal Ranjith said in his homily during the 2020 Easter Mass, which was livestreamed as Sri Lanka has been under lockdown for due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“But we meditated on Christ’s teachings and loved them, forgave them and had pity on them. … We did not hate them and return them the violence. Resurrection is the complete rejection of selfishness,” Cardinal Ranjith said, according to Vatican News.

The bombings at two prominent Catholic churches — St. Anthony’s in Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital city, and St. Sebastian’s in Negombo, a Colombo suburb — accounted for two-thirds of the 259 deaths and more than 500 injuries that resulted from the serial blasts carried out by Muslim suicide bombers in three churches and three hotels on Easter morning in 2019. The third church bombing occurred at a Christian evangelical church.

“This pardon should have got more attention,” Jehan Perera, a Catholic and media director of the National Peace Council of Sri Lanka, told the Register.

“The cardinal saying that he has forgiven the bombers at this [Easter] time is not surprising, as it is in keeping with Christian teachings,” Perera pointed out.

“More creditable on his part was holding back the Catholics [and others] from retaliating [against Muslims] in the immediate aftermath of the bombings last year,” Perera said. “He spoke against retaliation and did not legitimize it.”

But Perera, who heads the National Peace Council, added that the cardinal’s Easter 2020 message “might have had more impact if he had linked the forgiveness to the ongoing hate and misinformation campaign against Muslims with regard to the COVID crisis.”

The Muslim community, which accounts for 9.7% of the Indian Ocean island’s 22 million people, has been stigmatized and harassed following higher number of COVID-19 cases being linked to Muslims who attended an Islamic conference in India.

“I think the Easter bombing is not a priority for local media right now as they focus on COVID-19, which is the most pressing concern,” said Ruki Fernando, a Catholic human rights activist and member of the Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation Commission of the Conference of Major Religious Superiors of Sri Lanka.

“We are now in the 4th week of indefinite curfew — unprecedented even at the height of [Sri Lanka’s extended ethnic] war. If there was no COVID, I think there would have been more coverage in local media about one year after Easter Sunday bombings,” said Fernando.


Investigative Process Questioned

The Catholic human-rights advocate also expressed concern about the Sri Lankan government’s response to the bombings.

“Many Christians, including the archbishop of Colombo under whom two of the three churches attacked comes under, have publicly demanded truth, justice and reparations for Easter Sunday attacks. But we have not seen truth and justice,” Fernando said.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who promotes majority Buddhist Sinhala nationalism, was elected Sri Lanka’s president in November 2019 with a campaign platform focused on “national security” in the wake of the bombings, which were blamed on the Muslim community.

Investigations leading to extensive arrests took place before Rajapaksa’s administration came to power.

“The [investigative] team that worked under the previous administration arrested some 200 persons linked to Easter attacks mastermind Zahran Hashim’s jihadist network. Twenty-six of them were identified as ‘highly involved’ in the plot, a source familiar with the investigation,” The Hindu, an English-language daily in India, reported in an April 21 feature on the first anniversary of the Easter bombing.

The Hindu’s report also noted the arrest of Hejas Hisbullah, a senior Muslim lawyer of the Sri Lankan Bar Association, in connection with the investigation, evoking widespread criticism.

“There was an inquiry and a comprehensive report by a multi-party parliamentary committee,” Fernando noted. “But instead of following up on this, it seems the new government has preferred to appoint yet another presidential commission. We have to be careful about anyone with ulterior motives — whether politicians or religious leaders — trying trade off one against another,” Fernando cautioned.

The National Peace Council’s Perera also indicated that the investigation into the 2019 Easter bombing has been politicized.

“Recently, the government suddenly said they had arrested the mastermind behind the Easter bombings. Then they arrested the brother of a prominent Muslim political leader who has refused to rejoin the government and is with the opposition. … It is more to do with the coming [parliamentary] elections, and arm-twisting than anything else,” Perera said, alluding that the continuing investigation has been marred by political interference.

In fact, the national election scheduled for Saturday has been postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.


Attitudinal Changes Needed

“Immediately after the [Easter] attack, the cardinal made an appeal to the nation not to retaliate. That created a great impact and prevented riots in the country,” Sister Noel Christine, a member of the Sisters of Charity of Jesus and Mary, who works with victims of violence, told the Register with respect to Cardinal Ranjith’s efforts to promote religious reconciliation in the aftermath of last year’s bombings.

Despite that, Sister Christine pointed out that religiously motivated attacks “started here and there” within weeks, with some politicians exploiting the situation “to create animosities between communities.”

The investigation into the Easter bombing, the nun agreed, “has been politicized so much [that] it has become an issue that can be used and exploited for the election campaign.” 

“To forgive and pardon are core values of our faith. The Church therefore has to promote faith education program to heal the people from prejudices, suspicions, misunderstandings and to love the whole humanity believing that we all belong to the people of God,” she added.

Father Sarath Iddamalgoda, a senior priest of the Archdiocese of Colombo, told the Register that “I am aware that anti-Muslim attitude is now found even among the clergy. ... The attack on Easter Sunday brought anti-Muslim feelings to a climax.” 

While making statements of pardon will be “good to maintain the image of the Church,” Father Iddamalgoda said the Church needs to initiate education programs to counteract such trends.

The priest said, “Mere statements made on TV would not make any attitudinal change in people.”

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            Register correspondent Anto Akkara is based in Bangalore, India.