By Robin Gomes
As Sri Lanka held its first mass funeral on Tuesday following the Easter Sunday bombings that killed more than 300 people, the country’s Catholic bishops are urging the people to stay calm and act with prudence and restraint.
April 23 was declared a national day of mourning and the country observed three minutes of silence in the morning as a tribute to victims.
The government has blamed the local Islamist group National Thowheed Jamath (NTJ) for the suicide bombings that hit three churches and three luxury hotels packed with tourists.
The Islamic State group on Tuesday claimed responsibility for the attacks through its Aamaq news agency but offered no evidence.
Two of the places of worship were Catholic churches: St. Anthony’s Shrine in Colombo and St. Sebastian’s Church in Negombo. Another blast at the Evangelical Zion Church in the eastern coastal city of Batticaloa also claimed numerous lives.
As of Tuesday, the death toll rose to 321, with about 500 people wounded in the island nation’s worst violence since its civil war ended in 2009.
Call for investigation, calm
The Catholic Bishops' Conference of Sri Lanka (CBCSL) said it expects the government to conduct an immediate inquiry and urged citizens to remain calm.
"Ensure the safety of all citizens of the country," said Bishop Winston Fernando of Badulla, the CBCSL president.
"The fact that this attack on churches took place when the people were at worship on the most sacred feast of Easter,” he said, “is indeed a cruel act which is extremely deplorable.”
"Following the example of Jesus Christ who underwent undeserved suffering and offered himself to serve humankind," Bishop Fernando said, "we must also be prepared to have a compassionate heart and prayerfully seek solutions in a human and just manner."
Returning from the funeral of two of his Catholics killed in the bomb attacks in Colombo’s church, the president of Sri Lanka’s Catholic Bishops spoke to Vatican News about the strong faith of the Catholics that is helping them tide over the current difficult moment.
The Blessed Sacrament bishop said Catholics have responded to the bishops appeal and have maintained calm, despite the pain and suffering, adding that the passion of Jesus is helping them at this “trying moment”. Some of them have even said that “they would have been happier to die on a day like that”.
Despite their strong faith, Bishop Fernando said, some people are “upset and angry” but the priests, religious and good faithful lay people have been able to motivate them and accept things calmly.
The Sri Lankan bishops’ president expressed disappointment with the government in dealing with the crisis. In his opinion, despite warnings about the impending attacks, the country’s intelligence has failed.
What the country needs now is “good leadership”, he said, adding the leaders are trying to take “political advantage because this is the election year”, so "everyone is trying to get marks". Everyone criticizing the past and each other “instead of rallying together in order to address the situation”. The need of the hour is “good leadership,” Bishop Fernando said, adding, “it is not right and proper to take political advantage at this moment.”
Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, the Archbishop of Colombo, expressed concern that authorities had not acted immediately after receiving prior information of possible terror attacks.
"Strengthen the state intelligence services,” he told a press conference on April 22. “We were informed that the Easter Sunday attacks could have been avoided if the government had acted on the prior information."
Cardinal Ranjith also urged citizens not to take the law into their hands and refrain from harming persons of other faiths.
Rev. Asiri Perera, president of the Methodist Church of Sri Lanka, said the attacks could have been avoided if the government was more serious in implementing the law.
The National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka called on the Christian community to remain calm and refrain from being misled by rumours during this time of crisis. It also urged the government and security forces to take all steps necessary to bring the perpetrators to justice.
All Catholic-run schools in Sri Lanka have been closed until April 29 as a precaution due to the security situation.
More than 70 percent of Sri Lanka’s population of over 20 million, are Buddhist, 12.6 percent Hindu, 9.7 percent Muslim and 7.6 percent Christian. (Source: UCANEWS)