"The whole country was baptised overnight"
Father Prasad Harshan supports the victims of the terror attacks in Sri Lanka with his “Faith Animation Team”
An interview by Stephan Baier / Aid to the Church in Need
Father Prasad, the terror attacks at Easter in three Christian churches in Sri Lanka have wounded the faithful not only physically and psychologically, but also in their faith. How does the Church support them?
Our Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith wanted to have missionaries on the street, going from parish to parish, from street to street, to listen to the people in their homes, to hear their stories and stand by them in all their struggles of faith. We already started this three years ago. Now, when we learned of this tragedy, it has become a blessing; a blessing for the Church and for the people. We are five priests who are working with the terror victims. We are particularly active in Negombo, where 115 people were murdered and more than 280 injured in a single parish. Everywhere we see black flags of mourning. The people are wounded, physically, mentally and spiritually. We see how the people have been wounded in their faith and in their religious life. In 30 years of civil war, we never had such bomb attacks in churches. The people are asking themselves, why did it happen? And why at Easter?
Father Prasad Harshan has been supports the victims of the terror attacks in Sri Lanka. Copyright Aid to the Church in Need.
Did this cause any doubting of faith and distancing from the Church?
At first the people were shocked. How could God have permitted it in His own house? We priests were determined to stay at the people’s side, even though we had no answers to give. We were with them in their homes. We wanted to show them that God is and remains with them. After the shock came anger. Especially when they learned that the government had received warnings in advance. The people had to struggle with their feelings. Here, the Cardinal’s appeal to be guided by faith and not by emotions played a great role.
Sri Lanka, diocese of Colombo July 2019. Fr Chrysantha with a victim of the Easter Sunday attacks from April 23 2019, Colombo. Copyright Aid to the Church in Need.
What is your pastoral work in concrete terms?
We are working a great deal with children, who are scared to come to church or Sunday school again. And also with mothers, to strengthen their faith. 475 years ago, a Hindu king murdered 600 Christians in the north of Sri Lanka. We are taking the families of the victims to the places of memorial to these martyrs in the north. Those who died on Easter Sunday are martyrs, because they lost their lives for their faith. Through this visit to the earlier martyrs, we seek to heal the wounds of the families. People who were wounded or widowed in the civil war also speak with them, encourage them, and give witness to their faith in God.
Sri Lanka, diocese of Colombo July 2019. Victims of the Easter Sunday attacks, Colombo.
Many Catholics in Sri Lanka have told me that, after the terror attacks, they have become stronger and more devout than before.
For those who were directly affected, the wounds remain today. But altogether, it was a blessing for the Catholics in our country, because the whole country was baptised overnight. There is baptism with water, and baptism with blood. Suddenly, our whole country became aware of the presence of the Catholics and the special nature of their faith. In the past, some 4,000 people watched the Cardinal’s video message. Now there are hundreds of thousands. They want to see what he thinks. We saw the true meaning of Easter! But it began with the torn bodies, with the blood of the martyrs.
Sri Lanka, Negombo. Holy mass at St. Sebastian's Church. Three months since a suicide bomber killed close to 100 people on Easter Sunday, the 21st of April 2019.
The Buddhists represent 70 per cent of the inhabitants of Sri Lanka. Why have the terrorists not attacked Buddhist temples?
They are the majority in this country, and they also include fighters. We do not know why no Buddhist temples were attacked. It may have to do with the fact that, although the Catholic Church represents a minority in this country, it is the largest religious community in the world. The terrorists want to get the whole world involved.
How have the killings affected relations between Buddhists and Catholics?
The Buddhists started to discuss among themselves how admirable the Catholics were. Why did they not seek revenge? Fortunately, we have a wonderful system in the Catholic Church: the priests listen to the Cardinal, the faithful listen to the priests. Now the Buddhist monks also admire us Catholics, and they treat us with a great deal of sympathy and respect.
How did the leaders of the Islamic religious community in Sri Lanka react to the terror from within their own ranks?
The Muslim authorities recognised that it was their mistake to remain silent about the activities of terrorist groups in their communities. We were not aware of it, but they knew about it. They understood that it is a disaster for the whole country. Not all Muslims are terrorists, but all the suicide bombers were Muslims. Therefore, the Muslims could not deny their share of responsibility. They now have the mission to cleanse themselves internally. When the investigations started, weapons were found in the mosques. That was shocking for us. The Islamic leaders have a duty to interpret the Koran in a peaceful way.
Sri Lanka, diocese of Colombo July 2019 the Faith animation team - with Fr. Prasad Harshan (center). Copyright Aid to the Church in Need.
Has international solidarity with the victims in Sri Lanka been noticeable?
International Catholic relief organisations such as Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) have greatly helped us here. We are a minority in the country, but we know that we are part of a larger family. People who have never been to Sri Lanka pray for us and give donations! Thus, the Catholic Church has become a blessing for all the people of Sri Lanka. Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists also died in our churches. An inner transformation has begun, in that the people are looking to the Catholic Church. They begin to understand what it means to live in Christ.