In Sri Lanka churches and Catholic schools are still closed after the Easter attacks for which ISIS has claimed responsibility but which have been ascribed to extremist groups inside the Country. The attacks took the lives of 257 people and wounded hundreds of others in Colombo, Negombo and Batticaloa. It might be possible to return to celebrate Mass next week, but the intelligence alert level remains high, having collected information on the threat of attacks on the bridges connecting Colombo. The wounds inflicted on the Catholic community are starting to heal but their memory still stokes fear and teachers refuse to go back to school. Dedicated counselling is offered in the archdiocese of Colombo to provide support to the families of the bereaved and assist the wounded victims, involving hundreds of priests, nuns and volunteers. Interreligious meetings, that have been ongoing on a regular basis for years, have been hastily organized in the diocese of Colombo, Batticaloa, Kurunegala, Kandy, Mannar and Jaffna to preserve harmony and peace between the believers of different faiths. In fact, last week, in the city of Negombo, a trivial argument between two men, a Catholic and a Muslim, risked escalating into violent clashes between the two factions. Law enforcement authorities intervened and the government ordered a night curfew. Cardinal Malcolm Ranjit, Archbishop of Colombo, immediately went on site to calm people’s fears. He also asked to shut down wines and spirits shops, since that episode could have been caused by dangerous alcohol abuse. As a result of his statements, circulated by national and international news media, the archbishop of Colombo has somewhat become the government’s thorn in the flesh, as he tirelessly denounces and reminds politicians of their responsibilities. ” “It’s an extremely fragile situation, we walk with our feet in gasoline, just a spark and everything could blow up in flames”, Beppe Pedron, Caritas Italia representative for Southern Asia, told SIR. The impact of the attacks is such that “the members of the Catholic community are overcome by fear, they believe any false alarm or fake news circulating on social networks.” But something good has happened. Pedron has been living in Negombo with his wife and their two children for the past 13 years. They attend the local schools and are fully integrated into Sri Lankan society. “Since schools are closed we always have their friends in our homes, they often come over for lunch. It’s nice to rediscover the joy to act as a community and support each other mutually.”
No Masses, schools closed in Colombo and surrounding areas. “Past Sunday the Cardinal urged not to celebrate holy Mass in Colombo and its surrounding areas, but services were held in some villages – he said -. They are likely to resume next week but we still don’t know for sure. Catholic schools remain closed and
in public schools most classes remain empty, with very few teachers attending.”
During a meeting organized by the diocese of Colombo attended by university officials, by representatives of religious congregations offering psychological support and government psychiatrists, participants decided to activate a social-psychological and pastoral program with an integrated approach to meet the needs of the people affected by the terror attacks.
“Hundreds of priests and nuns accompany volunteers to meet the families and take stock of their needs,
Pedron said-. Those who don’t directly ask for help can freely decide to avail themselves of this counselling and support service. Meetings take place every week or every 15 days to identify people’s needs ranging from spiritual, psychological or material support to wheel-chairs, prostheses or financial aid.”
Tragic stories. The diocese of Colombo has set up a dedicated emergency division with two people appointed to coordinate the chores. Support is also given to families in other dioceses – in Jaffna or Kadny – who happened to be in Colombo or Negombo during the attacks. For example, a young man from Jaffna had just received a visa to emigrate to Canada. Since he had made a vow to Saint Anthony, he had gone to the church of Colombo to dissolve the vow and was planning to leave for Canada that same evening but he died in the attack. A wealthy family from Colombo lost their parents, leaving two orphaned children, a small child and a teenager. They were left alone and without resources, in need of social and psychological support. Even the United Nations lauded Caritas Sri Lanka for their assistance activity, and offered to support Caritas in case of need also by providing emergency psychological aid. “There is no need for financial support at the moment”, Pedron remarked, pointing out that, if necessary, assistance will also be given to people who witnessed the attacks and could suffer from post-traumatic stress disorders.
A service open to everyone, including believers of other religions. On the aftermath of the attacks, interreligious dialogue meetings have been organized in Colombo, Batticaloa, Kurunegala, Kandy, Mannar and Jaffna to prevent acts of violence between the members of different relgions. “Last week – said the Caritas worker – a Muslim leader publically condemned the terrorists and thanked Cardinal Ranjith for having managed to preserve a climate of harmony and prevent indiscriminate acts of retaliation carried out by Catholics against members of the Muslim community. They also promoted a fundraising initiative for Catholics involved in the attacks. But we don’t know whether it went through.”
“We are still in an emergency situation. We are trying to keep a calm atmosphere inside the community”,
Pedron pointed out. “Since it is an external phenomenon it risks failing to promote reflection inside the communities. Yet it represents a social issue that must be addressed with a long-term vision.” In this respect Caritas Sri Lanka has organized a conference with the leaders of major religions and with the participation of university officials “to seek to interpret the attack from a socio-political and religious angle and occasion new paths of engagement.”