– Marco Carvalho
Fear and mistrust took over an entire country following the atrocious bombings that killed at least 359 people and destroyed three churches and several hotels in three Sri Lankan cities. Amongst the victims are dozens of Catholics who were preparing themselves to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Almost a week has passed since the attacks and churches all over Ceylon remain closed while fear still permeates everyday life in Sri Lanka’s major cities. Danushka Silva, a Claretian missionary who has studied in Negombo – a overwhelmingly Catholic city that was targeted in last Sunday attacks – discussed with O Clarim the future of the Church in the island-nation. The road to normalcy, he says, will be hard and strenuous.
Almost 300 hundred people killed, most of them Catholics. The world is still in shock with the scale and the sheer brutality of these bombings. How is the Catholic flock living the aftermath of the attacks? Is there fear amongst the people of God?
This attack was completely unexpected. Even during the 30 years of civil war that the country has endured – and which was a dark passage of our history – the Church was never a target. In fact, the people would seek refuge in different churches for their own protection whenever hostilities took place in the vicinity. Hence, the Christians have never felt unsafe in entering a church or they were never in doubt with regard to the protection of their own life when they were inside a church. It was precisely the opposite: they felt secure and protected there. This particular string of attacks turned this attitude upside down. I heard people saying in the aftermath of this incident that it won’t be easy in the coming days to get into a church, to concentrate on God and to focus during prayer. They feel insecure and they fear new incidents may take place in other churches. For the moment, that possibility is very unlikely because there are no services taking place in any church. Churches remain closed to the general population. I am not sure if we will be able to celebrate Mass next Sunday. Even if we can, in which conditions will the celebrations take place? People are a little bit fearful and they are acting very cautious as well. Whenever a suspicious thing happens or someone strange is around, they tend to react and it was never the case since the war ended, ten years ago.
The Government warned that new attacks might be imminent. Do you fear this possibility?
At the moment, the Sri Lankan Catholics are, in a certain sense, hostages of a great uncertainty. There are many rumors being spread about other possible attacks. We are well aware of real incidents that where controlled by the security forces. There are a lot of people being investigated in connection with these attacks. We also hear about many other networks that could be a menace to our faith and our livelihood once again. Having in mind all these factors, I cannot really say that new attacks of this kind won’t be happening. At the moment, the security procedures are very tight in Sri Lanka. All the public places are under surveillance. Churches and mosques are also protected. Government forces are guarding even some institutes and social service entities, especially those that belong to the Catholic Church. With all these arrangements, the people also feel somehow protected.
Did you ever imagine something like this could happen? Were there any signs that led you to think that such an atrocity could have been eminent?
Personally, I never thought something of this magnitude could happen. In fact, I had a beautiful Easter celebration in one of the parishes where I work. By the time the bombings took place, we already had finished our services. The people who attended our service went home feeling really happy because they took home the good news of the resurrection of Christ. Within twenty minutes, the entire country was aware of the attacks and the circumstances completely destroyed the joy associated to the Easter celebrations. We are now aware that the government had been warned about the possibility of an attack for which they showed very little interest or contempt. I am not going to comment on this aspect. Nevertheless, the common people of this country were not at all prepared for such an event and I don’t think they believed something like this could happen.
Who are the Sri Lankan Catholics? Before these attacks, were they somehow a target?
Sri Lanka is a very diverse country, with a multi-religious population. Buddhists are the clear majority. Islam, Christianity and Hinduism are the other main religions with an expressive number of followers we can find in Sri Lanka. In the past, there had been a few instances in which different religious fanatic groups have acted violently against targets or members of other religious communities.
The Catholic Church’s style of behaving is quite different from the other religious groups. We, as a Church, hardly react to the actions or positions of other religious groups or answer to instigated violence in connection with religion. It may be due to the fact that our religious beliefs take peace as one of the most valuable virtues. Our religious leaders have hardly promoted violence and they don’t instigate in any way the people of God to take part in any violent events.
Other religious groups and communities are quite familiar with this position of the church in Sri Lanka. Therefore, the relationship that they have with the Church has never been a problem. The Catholic leaders have always been respected and accepted by all the people of Sri Lanka, whether they are Buddhist, Muslim or Hindu. As a result of these circumstances, I can hardly say that the Church was a target for any extremist groups. Concerning these series of attacks, it is possible that there can be some other reasons, of which I am not aware.
Do you fear for the future of the Church in the island? Will a return to normality be possible?
FDS: The future of the Church will not be the same, at least for the next few months. This will happen because the whole world is a witness to the atrocities that took place inside these three churches. Therefore, as I said before, the leaders of the Church will have to make a big effort to change the people’s mind with the aim to bring them to normalcy. My opinion is that the return to normalcy will be possible, but not in immediate terms.