1 December 2019
A child, representing future generations, saw that the three candles were no longer burning and cried out, “Why are you not burning? You’re supposed to stay alight until the end.”
Then the fourth candle spoke gently to the child, “Don’t be afraid for I am Hope and while I still burn, together we can re-light the other candles.”
All too often, depraved acts are committed to try and extinguish peace, faith and love. Two years ago, the world witnessed such an attempt resulting in the horrendous and heartbreaking scenes of devastation and death in Sri Lanka.
On April 21, 2019, beginning at 8.45am on Sunday of the Resurrection, nine suicide bombers detonated their devices in six locations around Sri Lanka. Three explosions were at churches packed with Easter worshippers, including the very popular St Anthony’s Shrine, Kochchikade (Colombo District), St Sebastian’s Church, Katuwapitiya (Negombo District) and Zion Protestant Church (Batticaloa).
The churches were extensively damaged. Wooden pews were tossed aside like toothpicks. Rubble filled the aisles and blood stained the walls. The other three explosions were at luxury hotels in Colombo, where people had gathered for Easter Sunday brunch.
A total of 267 people died in the attacks, including entire families and many children. Hundreds were seriously injured and many were maimed for life. Not only were Sri Lankans killed; so too were citizens of various countries, including: the UK, the USA, India, Australia, Denmark and China. And Christians were not the only victims; people of other religious traditions, including Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims, as well as people with no religious affiliation, were also killed.
It was during the 9.45am Tamil Mass that the police arrived at ‘my home’, the Redemptorist parish of St Theresa’s in Colombo, and ordered that Mass immediately cease and people quickly return home. All remaining Easter services were cancelled. The church was searched, secured and locked. Armed soldiers were posted in and around the church perimeter. As Easter Sunday unfolded, other minor explosions took place in the greater Colombo area and eventually the country was placed under curfew and social media platforms were shut down.
It so happened that I was in Kandy (about 120 kms from Colombo) preaching for Holy Week and Easter at the Redemptorist Shrine of Sancta Maria when I learned of the tragedy that was unfolding. A lady from Colombo phoned to ask me if I was safe, not knowing that I was away. When I asked ‘why’, she said that churches were being bombed. Naturally, media reports were sketchy and confused, with the country thrown into complete chaos, especially given that the explosions happened almost simultaneously. Government, military, police and hospitals were scrambling to assess and respond.
With a good deal of trepidation, I returned to Colombo on the afternoon train as planned. The two and a half hours journey was unusually quiet and eerie. The fear and uncertainty within my carriage was palpable. People were desperately worried about the safety and wellbeing of family and friends, as the sheer scale of the coordinated attacks was slowly revealing itself. I wanted to return to ‘my home’ at St Theresa’s to be with my Redemptorist confreres and to support our parishioners and worshippers at a time of great need.
It was during the train journey that I learned of the nationwide curfew to be enforced at 6pm. With the train due to arrive in Colombo just before six and with serious safety concerns for me being a foreign missionary priest, arrangements were made with the police for me to be met at the train station and taken quickly to St Theresa’s.
Upon my arrival, I found a sombre mix of ‘fortress and ghost-town’. Instead of a church buzzing with people celebrating Easter Sunday evening Mass, I encountered a deserted church being guarded by soldiers carrying machine guns, with bomb-detection dogs carrying out further searches in the church and in our community residence.
That night, my confreres and I sat stunned and helpless in our TV room, watching reports of the day’s events, unable to go anywhere or do anything, yet mourning and praying for a nation and its people; knowing that life would never be the same again.
These attacks on Easter Sunday were attacks against humanity. Extremist ideologies, that promote hate, intolerance and religious supremacy, no matter what tradition they come from, are to be strongly condemned and rejected; they have no place in the family of humanity. The despicable and evil attacks perpetrated against innocent people on Easter Sunday were the opposite of the Easter message they had gathered to celebrate.
Instead of love, hatred. Instead of peace, violence. Instead of joy, sorry. Instead of life, death.
The disturbing and now iconic image from St Sebastian’s Church, Katuwapitiya, of the blood spattered statue of the Risen Christ, with a hand raised in greeting, stands preserved among the people of Sri Lanka as an enduring reminder of the words Christ first spoke when he rose from the dead: “Peace be with you!” It also stands as a testament to the Christian belief that evil and death will never prevail.
Christ’s resurrection is a message of hope for our world at this time. We’re not alone; Christ is Risen. We’re Easter people and Alleluia is our song. With Hope, regardless of how bad things are or how bad they seem, the flames of Peace, Faith and Love can be re-ignited once again; a reality which is slowly happening in Sri Lanka.
Image: A woman is helped to safety after one of the bombs exploded (Eranga Jayawardena AP).
Image: The destruction inside St Sebastian’s Church (Chamila Karunarathne AP).