The recent series of bombings on Easter Sunday, the biggest feast-day for Christians, has evoked several responses with statements coming into Colombo Telegraph for publication. The Editor has asked me to brief the readership on some of the important or otherwise notable ones. I have chosen 5 without meaning to insult the others which are left out only on grounds of space. The five statements in full are available through the links provided.
A prefatory point I make is that the bombings seem to me not an attack on Christians in general but on Roman Catholics (constituting the largest Christian denomination) in particular. The bomber, as I gather from Batticaloa witnesses, first went to a Roman Catholic Church (St. Mary’s Cathedral) and found the Easter Resurrection mass ended and the crowd dispersed. He then went to the Zion Church close by and detonated there. Zion being a non-Catholic Christian church was coincidental. We may however make the point that the targeted people were largely Tamil, even the churches in Colombo and Negombo having had huge Tamil congregations (or recently assimilated Sinhalese congregations).
This brings me to the statement from a group of Interdenominational Christians from Jaffna. It was a singular occasion where Roman Catholics and other Christians in Jaffna came together to make a common-purpose statement. The others included free churches including Pentecostals. The names on the link give the variegated groups coming together for justice and peace. Being one of the signatories, I was privy to the discussions. A notable feature was the agreement that we all are ambivalent on terrorism. When for example the Sri Lankan army attacked us in Jaffna, we were all angry with the army and felt a little happy that our oppressors were getting it from the LTTE, which was also highlighting the oppression we were subject to. At the same time, we never liked the murders by the LTTE and its violation of our rights in conscription, especially of children, its robberies (of banks and individual). etc. That ambivalence pervades many of our attitudes to violence.
The line rejecting the violence of “any actor that takes innocent lives” may be misunderstood to imply that we like non-innocent people to be killed. The important message in the statement is in rejecting violence and calling for no retaliatory measures. An unintended positive consequence of the bombing is that peace-loving people came together to assert these Christian values. The statement ends saying “Our grief is never a call for retribution. Our grief is a call for coexistence.”
Mr. R. Sampanthan’s trilingual statement is short and sweet. He calls for unity, for the perpetrators to be brought to justice and importantly for us to stay together and be strong so that these extremists will not be able to take this country backwards. I read in these words “to take this country backwards” by a long-tested and experienced leader that we should not have another uprising like the one that followed Black July 1983 or the pogrom of Muslims from the Northern Province in 1990.
For us who have been used to peace these past 10 years, the reality of the hydra heads rising up again seems far-fetched but it is very real. For example, the Tellipalai Cancer hospital has some kind of specialized radiation machine, the only one in the Northern Province. The two operators are both Muslim. This was fine all this time. Then suddenly, after the bombing, the rumour is being spread that if the shields around the machine are removed and the machine is switched on, everyone in Jaffna will be stricken by cancer and die. Once started, the rumour spread rapidly. Doctor-Administrators, presumably ignorant, did not deny the story to questioning reporters, and said they had referred the matter to Colombo. They gave vigour to the story asking reporters to keep it secret to prevent panic.
As an electrical engineer having worked with radiation for oncology, I state carefully and responsibly that the radiation rays are always dangerous but their penetration falls as distance-squared so that the effects will not go beyond a short distance. This story seems a re-enactment of the pogrom of 1990. While Jaffna hospital is guarded by the police, the rumour has resulted in 25 soldiers being posted to Tellipalai today, Wednesday 24 April.
Another important statement is that by the Tamil Women’s Action Network. It is important, not least because T-WAN is led by Shreen Saroor, an articulate Muslim lawyer. Not surprisingly she told me that she is ashamed to be a Muslim. This is in contrast to Christian Ministers, especially the most affected Roman Catholic priests, evincing the forgiving character demanded by Jesus Christ. While we assert that not all Muslims are to be held accountable for these dastardly bombings by a few, Shreen as a Muslim is holding herself responsible. Well, she is wrong, grievously wrong. Her guilt perhaps is one of the worst outcomes of the bombings, which I think afflicts many good and thoughtful Muslims like her.
In its statement, T-WAN describes what happened, condemns it and calls for justice. T-WAN asserts that Islam is against the murder of innocent persons and rejects such violence. It describes the ample warnings the government had and calls for explanations as to government’s inaction. T-WAN reminds the government and media of the need to protect the people from the effects of hate-speech and calls for a greater role for women in uniting the different communities, peace-building and working against hate-crimes like this.
The statement from FUTA, the Federation of University Teachers’ Associations, is important simply because it is from FUTA which can influence our large university community. The statement regretfully reflects on taking peace and justice for granted, and urges our coming together, seeing hope in the long lines of people coming forward to donate at the blood bank. While that shows the willingness of people to help those at the receiving end of violence, the greater significance in the FUTA statement is its call to the government to be honest and its “appeal to all students, teachers, non-academic staff and administrators to come together and stand against violence and extremism in all its forms within and outside our universities.”
Last but not least is the statement by NCASL, the National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka. For those who do not know, unlike the Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Methodist Churches and the Church of South India (which too is Anglican but came to us via India) the Evangelical Churches tend to form stand-alone parishes (with loose alliances among like-minded parishes like NCASL), and they play down the authority of church tradition and history and claim to rely only on the Bible. Contrary to popular myth, the difference is not a commitment to evangelize the world which commitment all churches share but not all with equal enthusiasm). Because of misstatements in Colombo Telegraph Comments misunderstanding the words evangelism, evangelical, evangelicalism and evangelist, I urge the more interested reader to refer to more formal sources.
Besides for prayer and coming together in love, peace and forgiveness, to diffuse tensions and strengthen bonds between communities, NCASL calls for no retribution and emphasizes this through repetition: “We denounce any attempts to create further tensions through reprisal attacks on communities” and then repeats this down a few lines by calling us “to join hands together as one, act responsibly and ensure that the violence does not spill over in any form or manner.”
Whether by religious organizations or secular ones, all statements emphasize solidarity with victims, justice, non-seeking of vengeance and the eschewing of retaliatory violence.
Amen to that.