ATTACKS ON CARDINAL OUTRAGEOUS AND UNACCEPTABLE
Posted on December 9th, 2020

By Rohana R. Wasala

As evident in the social media, His Eminence Archbishop Malcom Cardinal Ranjit is taking heavy flak from certain quarters for urging the authorities to bring to justice the culprits behind the suicide bomb attacks on three churches and four hotels on Easter Sunday last year on the basis of the findings of the presidential commission, which is about to close its proceedings. It is not clear whether the critics are supporters or opponents of the Government or of the Opposition, but they are definitely not lovers of the country/nation. The criticism of the Cardinal is no doubt politically motivated, though he himself is absolutely above partisan politics. He is being an ideal Shepherd not only for his Flock, but also for all Sri Lankans, in both spiritual and secular (mundane) senses; he is performing this role most sincerely, with the greatest courage, and ascetic selflessness, without expecting any personal reward. It is with some reluctance and hesitation that I am broaching this subject because I don’t want to even remotely link his name to mundane politics. Globally, the Cardinal is a great asset for our crisis-ridden country. 

In response to Opposition queries regarding the progress of the presidential probe into the Easter Sunday (April 21, 2019) suicide bombings, the newly appointed Minister of Public Security, Rear Admiral (Retd) Dr Sarath Weerasekera, told parliament (December 5) that 257 persons (suspected of involvement) have been remanded and that 86 are being held under detention orders, and that he was going to meet with the Attorney General on Monday (December 7) to talk about expediting legal proceedings on the basis of the commission’s findings. The government has indicated that the presidential commission will finalise its work soon. The minister’s statement came amidst exchanges between Opposition and Government benchers centering on certain misgivings previously expressed by His Eminence Malcolm Cardinal Ranjit about the imminent winding up of the presidential commission of inquiry and the followup process.  Asked about the same subject by the media the next day (December 6), Minister Weerasekera said that he could understand the prelate’s concerns, and that although the Cardinal didn’t know about it, almost 90% of what should be done through the government has already been done by the police: 37 have been charged with manslaughter and others with aiding and abetting terrorism.     

The 2019 April 21 Easter Sunday suicide bomb attacks were a bolt from the blue. The bombers targeted three Catholic/Christian churches situated in Colombo, Negambo and Batticaloa and four hotels, three of them luxury class hotels in Colombo and another hotel at Dehiwala, near the zoo. An eighth bomber blew himself up in a residential part of Dematagoda.  These near simultaneous coordinated attacks by Islamist terrorists left at least 277 dead including the eight bombers and more than 500 injured according to different but generally compatible media accounts. The dead and injured men, women and children in the church attacks had been participating in Sunday mass. Among hotel attacks casualties, there were 38 foreigners.  It has now been revealed that there had been a plan to attack the Kandy Esala perahera as the next target, but that plan was not carried out. The attacks were absolutely unprovoked and pointless from the point of view of the normal civilized world. 

Of course, the eight bombers and the individuals who sponsored them wouldn’t have looked at the bombings that negative way. The choice of targets, including the Kandy Esala Perahera that they were planning to attack but later spared, suggests that they were aiming to destabilise Sri Lanka both internally and externally. Isolating Catholic/Christian churches and tourist hotels for the attack was most probably meant to create as powerful an adverse impression as possible among nations across the world about the country that justifies foreign intervention in its domestic affairs; had a few Buddhist temples been targeted instead, the international impact would not have been so much. Hollow expressions of solidarity trumpeted from an unexpected direction  with what looked like a gush of indecent haste, even before the reverberations of the bombings had properly died down, did little to allay the public’s growing suspicions of a foreign conspiracy behind the attacks. (Incidentally, the Cardinal mentioned the apparent possibility of such a conspiracy, earlier than most speakers.) In fact, SLMC MP Rauff Hakeem revealed to the Presidential Commission of Inquiry on Easter Sunday Attacks, in camera, what he knew about alleged foreign involvement in the heinous crime; former president and SLFP MP Sirisena who appeared before the same commission also said that a foreign power was involved, though he did not name it.  

The bombers and their sponsors must have been quite clear about their respective aims. For the terror sponsors the whole operation must have been nothing but a political project for destabilizing Sri Lanka. For the eight suicide attackers, it was purely a pious religious mission with a direct heavenly reward and the additional advantage of serving the cause they believed in by instilling fear into infidels (that is, all non-Muslims including atheists, agnostics and others like people of no religion), as an internet post by an ex-Muslim argued (an argument that the majority of ordinary Sri Lankans are sure to dismiss as false).    

Testifying before the presidential commission of inquiry former Eastern province Governor M.L.A.M. Hizbullah said, according to the media (November 27), that he hoped to open the Batticaloa University after talks with the government when the corona spread crisis is over. He claimed that he built it to teach the poor children of the Eastern province and that, when completed, it will be the biggest university in Asia; it had been planned to be built on 100 acres of land. He had received, it was reported, some 3.6 billion rupees in funds from donors in Saudi Arabia. No doubt, after what transpired at the presidential inquiry that cast doubt on the sincerity of Hizbullah et al, his nonchalance shocked and dismayed most of us, because it gave rise to fears among the concerned public that the unlawfully established Sharia college project will go ahead, without related issues being settled beforehand. 

Islamic instruction conducted by fundamentalists even in the Islamic ‘madrasas’ in the 95% Muslim Pakistan has been found to be problematic. About a year and a half ago the Pakistan government under PM Imran Khan moved to take over some 30,000 madrasas across the country with a view to ‘mainstreaming’ them, in response to international pressure following many complaints that they radicalised the youngsters. Islamic terror attacks carried out in India and Afghanistan were blamed on young Pakistanis who had learned in these madrasas. If that is the situation in the religiously near homogeneous Pakistan (pop. 212 m), is it unnatural for the much smaller, multi-religious Sri Lanka (pop. hardly 22 m) to be concerned about a Sharia University on its territory, that too potentially the biggest one in Asia?

Hakeem falsely complained to an Indian newspaper that Muslims faced communally institigated retaliatory violence  after the Easter attacks. He was basing himself on reports of a few incidents in some unrelated places far from where the bombings took place.  Muslims and other religionists and their shops and houses were indiscriminately targeted in these instances allegedly caused by paid agents provocateurs who were strangers to the area, employed by supporters of the yahapalana regime of the time, as rumoured; these incidents are described in the Wikipedia (obviously, as fed in by an anti-Buddhist editor) as ”anti-Muslim riots in retaliation to the bombings that were organized by the Sri Lankan Buddhist Extremist Group on Vesak Day…” (Actually, the monks of the BBS which is meant here played a big role in the rescue operations after the blasts, including cleaning the bomb-destroyed church premises and organizing blood donations; some blood donors had to be turned away when enough blood had been collected. (Lay) Buddhists, let alone Buddhist monks, never indulge in violence, except under extreme provocation; they are least likely to do that on the day of Vesak, the holiest day in the Buddhist calendar.) The outside world doesn’t know that members of Buddhist rights organizations like the BBS that are trying to articulate the legitimate concerns that Buddhists (the majority of the Sinhalese) have, some issues even threatening their very survival, are almost totally denied the most vital of human rights, the freedom of expression, in the local mainstream media just as in the foreign media, but are subjected to constant misinformation. The general media image of these Buddhist monk activists as terrorist hooligans is not shared by ordinary traditional Muslims.  

Returning to the main subject of this piece, it is inconceivable how the Sharia and the madrasas problem could be effectively addressed without the cooperation of mainstream Muslims who form 9.7% of the population. But such cooperation cannot be expected from the likes of Hizbullah and Hakeem. Not long before the Easter Sunday attacks Hizbullah was reported as warning that young Muslims in the eastern province might take up arms unless their grievances were answered (by the then government). What these grievances were only he knew. But before the time he was thus falsely complaining, there were internecine clashes among Muslims in the area, between jihadists and traditionalists, which resulted in murderous violence and property destruction by the extremists. The travails of the persecuted traditional Muslims did not seem to move Hizbullah to identify with them or speak up on their behalf. Some of these persecuted Muslims made secret contact with the monks of the BBS in Colombo to plead with them to intervene by persuading the political and civil authorities to give them relief, and these poor Muslim victims even provided the monks with documentary evidence of what they were undergoing in the east at the hands of extremists.

In the aftermath of the Easter attacks, the victim Catholics were wisely and ably restrained by the Cardinal from thoughts of committing any retaliatory violence against ordinary Muslims. He rose to the occasion, as a beacon hope, a symbol of compassion, forgiveness, and forbearance, and a great provider of emotional comfort for all Sri Lankans at that moment of universal sorrow and shock. This gesture resonated well with the characteristic patience and resilience of the generally Buddhist culture-influenced Sri Lankan populace. 

Apropos criticisms of the Cardinal over remarks he made about the progress of the Easter Sunday attacks probe, this is not the first time that the prelate has articulated such sentiments regarding the performance of politicians whether they happen to be in the government or in the  opposition, without himself playing politics. He always expresses his opinions candidly, without any malice or bias towards anyone. He says that though the church has forgiven the attackers, their sponsors must still be brought to justice, as the BBC once reported. At an audience he gave to SJB MP Kavinda Jayawardane of the Opposition who called on him on December 3, Cardinal Ranjit expressed his sincere hope and adamant demand that the findings of the presidential inquiry be not swept under the carpet under any circumstances or be subjected to any kind of political horse trading; he also wanted the real movers and shakers behind the Easter bombing savagery be firmly dealt with according to the law. To emphasize his point he added that if the present government fails to mete out justice to the victims by punishing those responsible, then the job will have to be given another group of people who can do it. This was clearly a bit of exaggeration meant to stress his point. The Cardinal’s comments implied, however, that he has not lost his trust  in the assurances already given by the president that justice will be done under his watch. 

People who believed that the Cardinal is universally admired, as he should be, for all that he is doing for the country and for the ideals that he is bravely standing up for, they were in for a rude shock. Hizbullah’s oddly defiant, affected cool that smacked of calculated dissembling (at the presidential commission) went almost unnoticed and hardly commented on, whereas the sincere, well meant remarks made by the Cardinal about the apparent tardiness of the progress of the presidential inquiry caused a flurry of adverse reactions in the media. Funnily enough, he has been described as guilty of ‘hate speech’ for saying what he said! he’s also been accused of advocating the overthrow the government by talking about handing over the business of punishing the persons involved in organizing the terror attacks to another party even though he is only the leader of a religious minority as alleged.

I find such attacks on the Cardinal simply outrageous, indecent, and unacceptable. We know Sri Lanka has a history of appointing commissions of inquiry as a strategy to consign vital problems to oblivion. It is not wrong to invoke that reality at the present time when we have enough reason to believe that there’s going to be a change in that unhallowed tradition, particularly, under our new president. The Cardinal has been for years stressing the need to preserve the benignly dominant Buddhist cultural identity and heritage of Sri Lanka and striving to unite people following different religions as children of Mother Lanka into a peaceful, harmonious and virtuous society. He is often seen participating in Buddhist events as an honoured guest. It is not difficult to understand that his unconventional behaviour does not go down well with at least some conservative Catholics. Perhaps, his severest critics are Catholics who are upset at what they probably dislike as his too accommodating attitude towards Buddhism and Buddhist monks. Buddhists have no reason to attack him when he is seen to be giving just a timely fillip to boost the confidence of the authorities who are set to move in the right direction under arguably the least realpolitik-driven executive we have got since independence. 

I would like to wind up with this tentative proposal, respectfully offered, for the attention of HE the President: What about inviting representatives of the clergy of the three minority religions – they should be of the same stature as the Nayake monks within their respective hierarchies – to be participating guest members of the Buddhist Advisory Council that the president consults every month?  The possible advantages of such a move are self-evident. 

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