Sri Lankan cardinal says religion should not be used as political tool

Sri Lankan cardinal says religion should not be used as political tool

In this Tuesday, April 30, 2019 file photo, Archbishop of Colombo Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith addresses a press conference in Colombo, Sri Lanka (Credit: Eranga Jayawardena/AP.)

Nearly two years after a series of bombings in Sri Lanka killed nearly 300 people, the country’s top Catholic official has accused government leaders of failing to identify those behind the grizzly attacks and of using the incident to advance their political agendas.

ROME – Over a year after a series of bombings in Sri Lanka killed more than 300 people, the country’s top Catholic prelate has accused government leaders of failing to identify those behind the grizzly attacks and of using the incident to advance their political agendas.

Speaking during his homily for the National Day of the Sick at Sri Lanka’s basilica of Our Lady of Lanka in Tewatte earlier this week, Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith said the presidential commission investigating the 2019 Easter Sunday bombings has only identified the public faces of those who failed to prevent the attack, but the “people behind the scenes, who funded these attacks, who planted the bombs, have not been found.”

Referring to Sri Lanka’s parliamentary elections held Aug. 5, during which Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa claimed victory after his People’s Party won by a two-thirds majority, Ranjith insisted that, “If any government tries to hide and release the culprits without punishing, I will oppose that government.”

Rajapaksa has appointed his brother, Mahinda, a former president of Sri Lanka considered the real power broker, as Prime Minister.

“The previous government did not investigate the incidents properly,” he said, adding that even though they had received advanced warning about a possible attack, they failed to act.

As a result, “members of the previous government are still trying to safeguard themselves,” Ranjith said, adding, “Everyone washed their hands and went home like Pontius Pilate.”

On April 21, 2019, as Christians throughout Sri Lanka were celebrating Easter Sunday, nine suicide bombers with ties to the National Thowheed Jamath Islamist group attacked three churches and three luxury hotels, killing at least 269 people and injuring 500 others.

After the blasts, news came out that the Sri Lankan government had receive information that a possible attack could take place, and that security officials had not acted on that information, leading both religious leaders and the general public to pin the blame on politicians and other government officials.

Both former defense secretary Hemasiri Fernando and former police chief Pujitha Jayasundara were taken into custody for failing to inform the public about the threat.

Ranjith, who visited the two Catholic churches that were bombed and has stayed in contact with the families of victims, said he knows of a man who lost his wife and three children, and who to this day, sleeps at the cemetery at night.

“This is not a matter of politics, this is a matter of humanity,” he said, adding, “It is wrong to base a political party on religion and language.”

While the Rajapaksa brothers enjoy wide popularity in Sri Lanka due to their handling of the coronavirus and their role in defeating the Tamil Tiger insurgency during Mahinda’s time as president, they have also been accused of having a spotty record on human rights and of discriminating against religious minorities in the Buddhist-majority country. The Tamil minority is predominantly Hindu, while the country also has significant numbers of Muslims and Christians.

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A third Rajapaksa brother has also indicated in past comments that the People’s Party seeks to imitate India’s right-wing nationalist BJP party and China’s Communist party.

“I urge the government to ban all parties based on religion and language,” Ranjith said in his homily, noting that around 30 years ago a group of Christians suggested to him that a Christian political party be established in order to secure their rights.

“I told them to please leave because we don’t need Christian political parties,” Ranjith said, adding that he believes Sri Lankan unity has been “shattered” since its independence.

“Today we debate issues such as what is the original language of this country, who are the original people, who owns the country. This partition began in the 1950s when we saw the error in deciding that only one language was the language of this country,” he said, adding, “It is really sad that we are still divided by race, religion and language.”

Returning to last year’s Easter attacks, Ranjith noted that the carnage could have been worse, as a van parked near St. Anthony’s Shrine in Kochchikade was rigged with explosives, but never went off.

He added that soon after the Easter bombings, plans for a second large-scale attack had been uncovered, and voiced his hope that “those who secretly conspired to do such things will be punished. Otherwise this incident may happen again.”

Speaking to ucanews.com, Rathnaweera, a human rights activist advocating for victims of the bombings, said government leaders at the time did not fulfill the duties of their office, adding, “political party leaders have exploited the incident to gain votes.”

“Some religious leaders demand justice from these corrupt political leaders and some Buddhist monks fight to go to parliament,” he said, adding, “Unfortunately, religious leaders have forgotten their duties to the people, while politicians misuse religious leaders for their benefit.”

In the meantime, he said, “people still wait for answers to many burning issues in the country.”

Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen

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