By Dayan Jayatilleka –
The signs are there and they aren’t good. It started weeks ago. Minister Sarath Weerasekara and Secretary/Defense Maj General Kamal Gunaratna’s responses to the questions and criticisms by the Cardinal and the Catholic Church were hardly respectful and were rather testy. They were also irrelevant. Their truculent defense was that a large number of suspects had been indicted and that the slow pace was inherent in the legal process. But that didn’t answer the questions raised and points made by the Cardinal and the spokespersons of the Church.
There was also the episode of the Foreign Minister, Prof Peiris seeking an audience with the Cardinal, not obtaining it and meeting the Papal Nuncio instead, while a Cabinet spokesperson Dr Ramesh Pathirana said on the record that Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa would meet Pope Francis during his visit to Italy.
The Cardinal then made the point that any attempt to bypass the Catholic Church of Sri Lanka and whitewash the Easter inquiry internationally just wouldn’t work, and that the Church having desisted from going global with its grievances, would now begin to do so.
Meanwhile Ven. Galagodaatte Gnanasara, the notorious head of the notorious Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) got into the act and criticized the Church and the Cardinal, while defending the regime. He was soon joined by a few other such organization of the far-right clergy. This was significant because these organizations were actively spewing Islamophobia in the postwar years, starting around 2012, including in and around Aluthgama in 2014. This was way before the birth of Islamist jihadi terrorism in Sri Lanka.
Still more significant was the re-entry by Ven. Dr Medagoda Abeytissa, who quite strenuously attacked the narrative of the Cardinal and the Church on the Easter attack. Ven. Abeytissa is an influential member of the inner circle of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. He is on the Buddhist Advisory Council of the President, and years earlier, he was a member of the pro-GR caucus ‘Eliya’.
Starting a few weeks back, the Sri Lankan (presumably Catholic) communities in Bologna, London and New York, demonstrated, calling for justice and accountability for the Easter massacre.
Most recently, and weirdly, a Navy team (or teams) visited certain churches and warned of possible attacks. The next day they apologized saying a mistake had been made. What was the mistake? Was the information false or unverified, in which case why did they share it, and if not, was the mistake to have given a warning, and if so, how could that conceivably be a mistake?
The religious Far-Right which is as much a component of the hardcore of the Gotabaya presidency as its counterpart was of the Trump presidency, with the other component in the case of President GR being the ex-military brass (unlike in Trump’s case) has a history of being anti-Christian in general (no pun intended) and anti-Catholic in particular. This was so from the second term of President Mahinda Rajapaksa when the Far Right within the deep state was literally calling the shots. Be it in Katunayake, Chilaw or Rathupaswela, the dead were Catholics. Troops went into a church at Rathupaswela, pointed guns at nuns, and according to eyewitness accounts, were responsible for the death of a young man who had sheltered in the church and phoned his wife from within it.
It was during President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s second term that he was faced with a most embarrassing issue. Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith had refused to attend the traditional Christmas even hosted by the President unless a Catholic nun was released from detention. In a ghastly first, a Catholic nun belonging to the order of Mother Teresa (now Saint Teresa) of Calcutta, had been locked up by the Sri Lankan state. President MR pushed through her release.
The regime cannot expect to fob the Catholic Church off with the response that there are over a hundred cases in the pipeline against those involved in the Easter attack. The Cardinal and Church spokespersons have asked several concrete questions, none of which are covered by the State’s answer so far. The questions emanate from the vantage point the Church held of having representation at the Presidential commission of Inquiry and thus having been present and keenly intent throughout the process. The queries seem to be the following:
1. Why wasn’t the complete report of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry released to the public, and at the least, to the Church? Why was a severely truncated version, redacted by a governmental team which included the President’s brother, released instead?
2. What of the detailed information repeatedly received from an Indian source/sources, and ignored or not presented (as a matter of urgency) either to those higher-ups on the ladder, or to the Church hierarchy? Who is to be held accountable and punished for this egregious crime?
3. What of the alleged meeting/discussion between one of the suicide-bombers and an alleged officer of Military Intelligence, after the suicide-bomber abandoned one target and before he detonated himself at another? What was the relationship between the officer and the suicide-terrorist? What transpired in the conversation?
4. Why was the said officer allegedly released by Military Intelligence while being questioned by the CID about the incident?
5. Who was allegedly code-named ‘Sonic-Sonic’ and what of the supposed telephonic effort to a Zahran Jr. (‘little Zahran’) overseas in order to secure ownership of the attacks by ISIS/ISIL?
It would be a good idea for the Foreign Minister or the Justice Minister to respond squarely to these questions, with the degree of transparency, rationality and civility required.
Comprehending the Church
In the meantime, the religious Far Right in the state (in Cabinet and high-officialdom) society should be briefed on the possible blowback which should be adequately factored-in.
The Catholic Church is the oldest and largest international institution in the world. It numbers 1.4 million adherents.
It has enormous ‘soft power’ and influence. Joe Biden is a Catholic. So is Jake Sullivan (NSA). So are UN Sec-Gen Antonio Guterres and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet.
All of Latin America and the Ibero-American and Hispanic world is Catholic and many more countries are Christian. That amounts to many votes in UN bodies, and a shaping influence on world opinion.
The Cardinal, the Catholic Bishops conference and the priests and nuns cannot be deceived or diverted by indicting small-fry or sacrificing scapegoats. Simply to become a priest take 17 years of formal education, including degrees where the examiners are in the top universities in Rome. Further up the ladder, many have PhDs from reputed European universities. The Catholic clergy is ensured a diversity of experience and cross-training through rotation from the poorest Sri Lankan communities to churches in New York City.
The Church cannot be divided. Certainly, there have been and are serious ideological differences in the universal church (progressives, liberals, conservatives) as well as in its Sri Lankan unit. However, the Catholic Church is the global institution that has shown the greatest success in balancing unity and local autonomy.
The Catholic Church in Sri Lanka may have had more than one view on Cardinal Ranjith (some recall his theological conservatism on the issue of Fr Tissa Balasuriya, others his sympathetic ear for Mahinda Rajapaksa) but on the issue of the Easter massacre and after, the Church is at one, in solid support for and defense of the Cardinal, for his courageous stand.
I can also testify from my interactions with the Papal representatives in Geneva, Paris and Moscow, the UNHRC and UNESCO, that he is held in very high esteem in the Vatican. Archbishop Malcolm Ranjith was moved up by three quite diverse Popes: John Paul II, Benedict and Francis. Proficient in seven languages, at age 57 he was a Cardinal, one of the few in Asia, and a member of the College of Cardinals, the electoral college that chooses the Pope, the spiritual leader of 1.4 billion of the world’s people.
The Church and the Catholic community, whether in Sri Lanka or any other part of the world, cannot be cowed or intimidated. Martyrdom is part of the genetic code of Catholics, who unlike jihadists, will not kill for their cause but will die for it.
The Sri Lankan regime is probably unaware of what the three manifestations of the Catholic Church are called. According to theology, the Church in Heaven is called the ‘Church Triumphant’. The Church in Purgatory is called the ‘Church Suffering’.
Most pertinent is what the Catholic congregation living on earth is called. It is titled the ‘Church Militant’. It is so named because as St Paul wrote to the Ephesians, it “wrestles…against the rulers of the world of this darkness, against the spirits of wickedness in the high places.” (Ephesians 6:12)