Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith of Colombo is dealing with a pastor’s worst nightmare.
Ten days after devastating Islamist terrorist attacks targeted two local Catholic churches alongside several other targets, killing more than 250 people and seriously injuring hundreds of others, the Sri Lankan cardinal continues to grapple with the carnage.
In a May 2 telephone interview with Register Rome correspondent Edward Pentin, Cardinal Ranjith outlined three main areas of challenges facing the local Church: helping the surviving victims and others who have been traumatized by the loss of their loved ones; seeking peace and reconciliation between the local Christian and Muslim religious communities; and rebuilding the two churches that have been almost completely destroyed.
Among other issues, he also discusses how the failures by the Sri Lankan government to take adequate precautions contributed to the massacres and the imperative to punish the terrorists who carried out “all the senseless violence.”
Your Eminence, what challenges are you now facing?
Well, one of the challenges is how to help these people to get over the trauma that they have faced of losing their loved ones or ending up with severe injuries in their bodies after having gone to church. They went to church, not for any pleasure, personal pleasure or anything like that. They went to church because they believed in God. And to have this kind of serious suffering that they had to undergo, we have to get over that phase of the problem. That’s one.
The second challenge we have is to rebuild everything up from practically zero, as far as the churches are concerned.
And the third challenge, I would say, is how to achieve peace and reconciliation between the communities that have been estranged because of this.
Since the attack was carried out by a group of people who claimed that they are Islamic (even though I doubt very much that there’s anything Islamic in that matter), our people have become suspicious of the other community. It is important for us to mend the fences and bring the two communities together. So that’s another challenge that we will have for the future.
And we will also have the problem of facing inaction on the part of the government and a very lackadaisical attitude, a very childish way of looking at these issues, motivated more by self-interest than by any sense of patriotism for our country and our people.
And how are you helping people pastorally in their faith through this highly traumatic situation?
Of course, now we had to cancel these Masses on two consecutive Sundays because of continuous threats on us by different sources. We canceled last Sunday’s Mass, and now we have had to cancel this Sunday’s Mass, also due to further threats that have been coming.
We are trying to help our people to get out of this atmosphere of threats and traumas and all that. Now we have started a program of psycho-social counseling programs, by visiting the families. Priests have visited almost all the families affected by now, and they are going to do a second and a third round. They will also try to help them to give a little bit more strength for themselves, spiritual strength.
It’s no doubt a great challenge for you as priests, and you as cardinal-archbishop there, to help them and give them comfort and solace in their faith.
Yes, I have tried. I have gone several times to see them. I have gone myself to the community so many times, and I intend to meet them again and again as long as it takes in order to help them.
The injuries must be very bad — what sort of injuries are we looking at here that the faithful are suffering?
The injuries of some of them are very serious: They have had brain surgery due to shrapnel entering the brain. Some others have suffered body damage due to cases of shrapnel entering the liver, the kidneys, all kinds of situations. This is because these bombs contained a lot of shrapnel that went around and damaged a lot of people. Even people who were not badly injured have been injured by these missiles that were flying all over the place.
And lost limbs, of course.
Yes, quite a number have lost limbs. So we have got to replace them or help them to get back to normal, into wheelchairs, and things like that.
Do you know why these Islamists struck Sri Lanka? Many think it is strange, as Sri Lanka has been no threat to anybody, and the faithful in Sri Lanka are no threat.
That is why it is a very big surprise for us, perhaps because these youngsters who committed these suicide [attacks] have been in Syria, some of them. They’ve been trained there, probably, because, at one time, ISIS had invited young Muslims to join them. So some of these people who went there were quite a wealthy lot, you know? They are educated and wealthy. They have gone there and joined their ranks, also due to continuous Islamic extremist propaganda that’s taken place, unknown to us, through a network of some mosques and other places.
Do you think that they thought Sri Lanka is an easy target?
Yes, because Sri Lanka has gone into a kind of spirit of complacency because, after the 30-year war [the 1983-2009 civil war], everybody felt that they were quite okay and that there was no need for any extraordinary security measures. So we had got into a spirit, a mood, of not being concerned about security issues. And so they found it rather easy to indoctrinate these youngsters and send them to carry out these attacks.
You’ve also criticized the government for not taking enough precautions.
That’s true. That’s true.
Why do you think they didn’t? Why were they so negligent in this?
Well, I don’t know — because there’s also controversy between the government and the opposition. They were not serious enough in their security programs and so on, and that’s why all these people had educated, trained them, sent some missionaries from outside to, sort of, indoctrinate these youngsters. They then sent some of the youngsters to their camps in other countries, trained them and sent them back.
When we last spoke in November 2017, you put Islamist extremism down to two reasons: Firstly, you said it was a “reaction to Western secularism and its turning away from God”; and, secondly, you said it was due to a “lack of resolution of the Palestinian problem.”
I have not changed my opinion.
So, in a sense, would you say what’s happened in Sri Lanka is also a result of secularism in the West?
Yes, because secularism seeks to marginalize anybody with religious feelings, and all these religious practices [secular societies] disdain them. Therefore, religion is sidelined, and that is not acceptable, especially to the Muslims. Therefore, the Muslims get radicalized more and more, the more that secularism tends to marginalize religion.
It’s filling a vacuum, in a sense?
After the bombings, you spoke of dealing with the perpetrators “mercilessly” and that they were like “animals.” How should they be treated if they’re caught, do you think? What should be done?
That was an initial reaction of mine. I didn’t intend to hurt the animals or animal lovers by saying that. But it was an initial reaction when I saw how bad the situation looked, with all those murders and all that, one on top of the other. It looked horrible. That is why I said that. I also mentioned that they should be dealt with seriously, so I hope that such people will be punished. That has to be done.
Justice has to be done.
Justice should be done for all these deaths and all the senseless violence that was perpetrated. The people who sent these people to do that should be punished.
Lastly, Your Eminence, what can the faithful in the United States and elsewhere do to help you over there? What’s the best way to help?
First of all, accompany us with their prayers, to give those suffering the strength to bear their sufferings and to get over their traumas. And, secondly, whatever help financially or otherwise, that they have and can offer, they’re most welcome to do that.
What’s the best way to send that financial help?
Our website, the Archdiocese of Colombo, contains information on accounts where money could be credited. Any help is most welcome.
By the way, the Holy Father has sent a direct letter to me expressing his condolences and spiritual closeness to our community. It was written on the 24th, and so I received it today.