Church bells will toll across the country today, April 21st at 8.40 a.m. to mark the first anniversary of the Easter Sunday bomb blasts that killed 259 people and injured scores of others.

The Head of the Catholic Church in Sri Lanka, Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith has also requested all other religious places to join in the ringing of bells.  This is to be followed by 2 minutes silence at 8.45 a.m. and lighting a candle or lamp in all homes in remembrance of all victims and to pray that Sri Lanka will never again witness such a cruel act.

With the spread of COVID-19, the catholic church of Sri Lanka has cancelled all events it had organised to mark the first anniversary of that terror attack on three churches, which claimed the lives of and injured Christians celebrating Easter.  These three churches, St. Anthony’s in Kochchikade, Colombo, St. Sebastian’s in Katuwapitiya (both Catholic) and the Zion Church, Batticaloa,(Evangelical) like all other Christians places of worship were packed with devotees celebrating the holiest of days, following 40 days of lent.  The attacks were carried out by members of the National Thowheeth Jama’ath, who also bombed three hotels in the country’s capital, Colombo, the Shangri-la, the Cinnamon Grand and the Kingsbury, which resulted in many tourists, locals and hotel staff losing their lives or being injured.

Months after the Easter Sunday bombings the faithful participate in a service to remember the victims.
Months after the Easter Sunday bombings the faithful participate in a service to remember the victims.

The dastardly act did not only affect the Christian community, but had devastating effects on so many others; the tourist industry and ancillary professions as well as those living temporarily in Sri Lanka while awaiting their refugee status applications to be processed through the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR).  The latter group, many who had come to Sri Lanka from Pakistan and Afghanistan, were mostly from the Christian or Ahmediyya communities, but were regarded as Muslims in the aftermath of the bombings.

A year on, Counterpoint decided to check in on the lives of all those who were affected by the events of that horrific Sunday.

Even while reeling from the bombings and trying to make sense of that senseless act, the Catholic Church, under the leadership of the Cardinal sprang into action to lift up the members of her fallen community.

Says a project coordinator at the Archdiocese of Colombo, who did not wish to be named, the Church leadership had, within days, put in place a psychosocial and pastoral programme to assist the victim families.  The programme was directed by the Caritas Sethsarana arm.

Fr. Claude Nonis and his team handled the psychological aspects while the Faith Animation Team headed by Fr. Prasad Harshana assisted the victims on the spiritual side.  Meanwhile, the team handling the social side of things had provided immediate help with the medical and funeral expenses and had moved into providing assistance thereafter on a case by case basis.  The legal and housing issues had been managed by Fr. Lawrence Ramanayake.

While assistance for the injured is ongoing, the social team has also begun training programmes for those who lost their livelihoods owing to injuries or other related issues stemming from the Easter bombings. In partnership with World Vision, Counterpoint   learns training has been provided on ‘micro-business management’ and  ‘grow your business’ to families in the Katuwapitiya area.  The second phase of the programme for those living in the outskirts of Katuwapitiya is to begin shortly.

Many of these families have opted for home-gardening, poultry farming and similar ventures to earn a living. Special funding has also been provided to the victims of St. Anthony’s Church, though, Counterpoint learns that many of these victims are not located within the area, but are from across the country, Kochchikade being home to a migrant population.

Perhaps the largest commitment in terms of funds and length is the scholarship programme set up for children who have either lost one or both parents.  In partnership with Dialog, the Church has set in motion a project that will be in place till 2038 ensuring that the educational needs of all child victims are taken care of until they turn 18 years old.   Costing more that Rs. 115 million, a total of 287 children will be cared for under this project which began in January this year. While 70% of the allocation will be provided to the guardian of the child for ongoing expenses, the balance will go into a bank account, which will be available to the child at 18 years of age.

Meanwhile the church is also working on obtaining housing for all the victims who need a permanent abode, and is in discussions with the government in this regard, Counterpoint learns. The church has already bought the land for some of the victims, and the government is expected to build the houses, Counterpoint learns.

When COVID-19 hit and the country went into lockdown, the social arm of the programme ensured the victims received dry food, medicine and funds as required.

A temporary shrine to St. Anthony put up outside the church attracted the devout, even while that church was being reconstructed.
A temporary shrine to St. Anthony put up outside the church attracted the devout, even while that church was being reconstructed.

For a community that is extremely devout, says the Project Coordinator, COVID-19 and the restrictions in movement, clashed with the Lenten programme this year. Seth FM a local radio station came to the rescue, and along with the priest in charge had ensured all families in the Katuwapitya area were able to fulfil their 40 day Lenten obligations through live broadcast of the Way of the Cross and related religious services.

Meanwhile, the Zion church in Batticaloa had also received Rs. 10 million from the Catholic Church.

And what of the refugees who became accidental victims of the Easter Sunday blasts?   Given that the bombers were of the Islamic faith, enraged residents directed their anger at these refugees believing they were Muslims.  The mislaid anger resulted in the refugees being displaced and moving to temporary camps.  Volunteers, the UNHCR and other non-profit organisations swung into action to help these families providing food and essential items.

Says Ruki Fernando, human rights activist and advisor, INFORM Documentation Centre, all of these families are now back either in the homes they were living in last April, or in new accommodations.   Several families have also had their applications for settlement processed and moved to other countries.  He added that while traditionally many of these families had been settled in the USA or Canada, following the Easter Sunday situation, France and Australia too had agreed to host them.

Refugees were put up in temporary camps when misplaced anger drove them out of their homes.
Refugees were put up in temporary camps when misplaced anger drove them out of their homes.

Given that they are not allowed to work while waiting for their applications to be processed by the host countries, the families continue to receive financial assistance from the UNHCR or other similar organisations.

Ruki Fernando says that while every crisis in the country affects these refugee families one way or another, this time around other than the difficulties in getting them their financial assistance, they have been able to remain in their homes.  However, with some quarters attempting to whip up anger against the Muslim community blaming them for the spread of COVID-19, these families are fearful of being attacked or displaced, he said.

Meanwhile a UNHCR source who wished to remain anonymous told Counterpoint that all families have been provided instructions on what they must do in case of a sickness while the country battles the Corona virus.   Instructions were given out in their languages, Counterpoint was told.  Meanwhile, processing of activities for the families to move to their host countries has been put on hold until global air travel suspended owing to COVID-19 is resumed.

For members of the tourism trade, it has been a long and uphill task since October 2018, when tourist numbers declined due to the constitutional crisis the country faced.  The industry was just picking up speed when the Easter bombings took place, resulting in many job losses and reduction in earnings.

Sri Lanka had just embarked on a grand scheme to attract as much as 2.5 to 3 million tourists in 2020 and earn at least Rs. 6 billion in revenue.  However, the Corona virus has put paid to that goal.

Only time will tell how soon the trade will pick up, and when families connected to tourism will be able to earn a fair wage again.


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