Sri Lanka cardinal calls on world to pressure govt to investigate 2019 church attacks

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ROME – On Easter Sunday in 2019, Islamic extremists targeted three churches and three hotels in Sri Lanka’s capital, and killed 267 people. As the third anniversary approaches, the country’s Catholic cardinal is appealing for the international community to pressure his government into properly investigating the events.

“Entire families were wiped out,” said Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, the Archbishop of Colombo. “There is much pain in the hearts of those affected. I am not here speaking for myself, but in the name of these families. I’m appealing to the international community to continue insisting a thorough investigation be carried out.”

Even though the attacks were immediately blamed on a homegrown Islamic extremist group, the cardinal says there are reasons to believe ISIS, the terrorist organization that perpetrated genocide against several minorities in Iraq, was involved in the bombings.

However, according to the cardinal, neither the current government, nor that which was in power when the attacks occurred, want to know the truth. In fact, he said, “they are covering for each other’s cronies.”

“We don’t know what truly happened, we have to find answers,” Ranjith said Monday.

“The first impression of this massacre was that it was purely the work of a few Islamic extremists,” the cardinal said. “However, subsequent investigations indicate that this massacre was part of a grand political plot.”

The church has previously suggested that the attacks helped Gotabaya Rajapaksa win the presidential elections in November of 2019.

The prelate’s remarks came during a press conference via Zoom organized by the pontifical charitable organization Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), which focuses its efforts in helping persecuted Christian communities.

According to ACN’s bi-annual report on Christian persecution, when it comes to Sri Lanka, attacks on both Christians and Muslims have risen following the end of the civil war in 2009. The attacks have largely been carried out by Sinhalese Buddhist nationalists. However, there has also been an increasing number of attacks on churches by Hindu extremists. Discrimination against Christians has manifested in various ways, including attacks on churches, denial of burial in public cemeteries, and the refusal to enroll Christian children in schools.

Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith of Colombo, Sri Lanka, looks at the explosion site inside a church in Negombo April 21, 2019, following a string of suicide bomb attacks on churches and luxury hotels across the island nation. As an investigation into the Easter 2019 bombings continues, Pope Francis expressed solidarity with the Sri Lankan Catholic Church, Cardinal Ranjith said Oct. 24, 2021. (Credit: CNS photo/Reuters.)

All eight of the suicide bombers who carried out the Easter Sunday bombings died in the blasts. However, their associates and relatives stand accused of being involved in planning and masterminding the terrorist attacks, which are some of the bloodiest in Sri Lanka’s history.

They include the father of two of the suicide bombers and another Sri Lankan national suspected of being affiliated with ISIS.

When the trial officially began last November, 25 people faced over 23,000 charges, including conspiracy to murder, aiding and abetting the attacks, and collecting arms and ammunition. The lawyers involved in the case warned that the sheer multitude of the charges and staggering witness list – 1,215 people – could lead to the trial dragging on for years.

Yet this February, Sri Lanka’s High Court acquitted two top officials accused of “crimes against humanity” for failing to prevent the bombings.

The state had indicted the two men in November for failing to act on early warnings from an Indian intelligence agency that local jihadists were planning a string of suicide bombings in April 2019. The three-judge panel dismissed all 855 charges against Hemasiri Fernando, then-secretary to the ministry of defense, as well as then-inspector general of police, Pujith Jayasundara.

Though Buddhism is considered the state religion of Sri Lanka and constitutionally has a series of privileges, only 70 percent of the population of 20 million identifies as Buddhist. Around 12 percent of Sri Lankans are Hindu, 10 percent are Muslim and 7.5 percent are Christian, mostly Catholics.

Speaking about Pope Francis, who on the day of the bombings condemned “such cruel violence,” the cardinal described him as a “great source of inspiration.”

“From the moment the attack took place, he has been issuing messages, written letters, including a handwritten letter to me, saying that he is with us in our suffering,” he said. “And he has encouraged me to continue to help those who are struggling” to recover from what happened that day.

His press conference came two weeks after meeting the pope, and one week after appearing in front of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva March 7, where Ranjith called the massacre a “political plot,” and demanded a mechanism to probe the attacks.

The cardinal acknowledged that the church has done everything it could to solve the issue within Sri Lanka but “failed,” which is the reason he is now calling for the international community to intervene so that the 267 people who lost their lives, those wounded, and their families, can get justice. He argued that the legal system under the attorney general will not consider the recommendations of the commission on the Easter attacks, which leaves no option but to turn to the international community.

“And after this violence took place, we were very keen to know who really carried out these attacks,” Ranjith said. “So we kept on insisting with the government of that time that there should be a transparent inquiry.”

A three-expert committee was created to investigate the incidents, but the report was never published.

A second commission was created by parliament, with four judges tasked with finding the truth. It took them 18 months to have a report they could present. Among other things, the report included a “series of recommendations,” the cardinal said, including a ban on all extremist organizations. However, according to Ranjith, only some Islamic extremist groups were banned, but not those belonging to Buddhism or Hinduism. This, he said, shows the government is biased and not interested in truly fighting extremism.

Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma

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