The inquiry resulted in 23,000 charges brought against 25 men. The Catholic Church, however, is unconvinced that justice has been done for the 269 dead and 500 injured. Mark von Riedemann, director of public affairs for Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) spoke with Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, Archbishop of Colombo, during his recent visit to ACN headquarters, in Germany, to discuss the conclusions of the investigation.
After three years marking this tragedy, how would you describe the feelings of Sri Lankan Catholics?
The whole Sri Lankan Catholic community wishes to see the truth about these attacks, because the harm done to the community has been very, very profound, with 269 people dying, most of them Catholics, not to mention the attempt to set one religious community against the other, which was the hidden agenda behind these attacks.
The religious communities in Sri Lanka responded in an extraordinary manner after the bombings. Did the attack divide the communities, or did it somehow bring them closer together?
Some of the people who helped us in this situation, who helped these families, were Muslims. They gave us a lot of money. They came and cried with us. And in fact, they and we feel that the people of religion are being pitted one against the other in order to gain political advantage. So, we have to be very clear about identifying who is behind this whole attempt and avoid falling into the trap of inter-religious violence.
According to media reports, the government inquiry spent 650 million rupees, about $2.5 million USD, to investigate the bombings. The police have filed 23,000 charges against 25 men, accusing them of plotting the bombings. But you're not convinced by this report.
The report itself is very good. But we want the recommendations to be implemented. And one of the main recommendations in this matter is not just the punishing of 25 Muslims with 23,000 charges. According to the report, these Muslims do not seem to have carried out this attack with a religious motive. There seems to be a political motive behind this. There seems to be someone with authority behind this attack.
The allegation is that ISIS in Indonesia were the ones that provoked or called for the attack. This is the official story, but there are questions. When were your suspicions first raised that the ISIS explanation was not the full one?
My suspicions came up immediately after the attack because I felt that a ragtag band of youngsters could not have carried out this kind of very professional thing. I urged our people not to react against the Muslims, I found there was an attempt to set the Christians against the Muslims to engage in violence. This could have spelled a huge disaster for the country. When we began receiving information from different sources, we felt that a true investigation had not happened. Now, the report says the Public Service Commission makes very serious findings in terms of the status of the state intelligence apparatus. The intelligence information was not shared with relevant parties. The PSC also observes that further investigations will be needed to understand whether those with vested interests did not act on intelligence so as to create chaos and instil fear and uncertainty in the country.
Allegations coming out of India suggest that information was already available to the government 17 days before the attack actually occurred. Can you give us a little bit of background? What was the evidence? What was the information that was available to India?
The Presidential Commission report gives evidence that four such warnings were given by the Indian government to our state intelligence service. But all the same, the Sri Lankan government did not warn the public, they did not warn the Church. Instead, they circulated a private letter among themselves, asking the leaders to be careful, and avoided telling the public about it. Therefore, they knew about the attack that was coming. They knew that some people will be harmed and killed, but they didn't want to prevent it.
The Sri Lankan intelligence services and the police came to know about the violence and violent activities of a man called Zahran Hashim, the founder of the Islamic group National Thowheed Jamath because before the attack they discovered a training camp where Islamic extremists were being trained with explosive material, so they knew about this even in spite of the Indian warnings. So, there was a series of discoveries about these people and their activities leading to possible future attacks. And then came the Indian warnings. So, when you put A and B together, it was clear that they knew about it. Then why did they not prevent it?
What advantage would the Sri Lankan authorities have in not warning their population that an attack could happen?
The Parliamentary Select Committee Report raises the possibility that they did not want that information to be given because they thought it could create chaos in the country, and an electoral candidate would stand to gain if he promised stability and security for the people. That electoral candidate is the present president of Sri Lanka.
One can put A and B together.
What are you asking for?
We want to live the truth. We want this Commission Report to be implemented. And there are some areas where the commission recommends further investigation, and we want further investigations in those areas. If that cannot happen, then we have no other choice but to go to the international community. We are running out of options.
How do you carry this weight?
It's a difficult situation. We have to pray continuously and ask the Lord to help us. Sometimes, in this struggle, I feel a little bit like the helpless Moses who tried to take his people out of Egypt and across the sea. To somehow achieve justice for our people means not to take revenge, but to find out who really did it and why? There was no provocation whatsoever. The victims never did anything harmful to anybody.
What is it that we can do?
The most important thing is to pray because the Lord is more powerful than anybody else. The Lord can give us justice through prayer. Continuous prayer is important for us, and also a spirit of solidarity and understanding that in these attacks not only Sri Lankans, but also several Americans were killed; there were several Europeans who were killed. There were 47 from 14 countries killed and there were 82 children. The blood of all these people is crying out to heaven for justice. And as shepherd of these people, I represent God. I have to stand on the side of Jesus Christ and on the side of the poor and the voiceless for justice, and that is why I am asking all to pray for us and to stand with us in solidarity.
Featured Image: Cemetery in Negombo - tombs of the martyrs. Copyright: Aid to the Church in Need.