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Sri Lanka: In pursuit of justice 5 years from Easter Sunday attacks

On the eve of the fifth anniversary of the Sri Lanka Easter Sunday bombings, efforts to seek closure and accountability for those responsible for the massacre continue to face many challenges. Fr Rohan Silva, director of Colombo’s Centre for Society and Religion speaks about his tireless quest for justice.

By Linda Bordoni

Five years on, the calls for justice and accountability for those responsible for the Easter Sunday bombings in Sri Lanka continue to ring out, unheeded and answered.

The coordinated attacks that ripped through churches, packed with Christian worshipers on 21 April 2019, and through three international hotels, killing at least 290 people and injuring hundreds, haunt the people of Sri Lanka who demand closure and truth.

Colombo’s determined and courageous Cardinal, Malcolm Ranjith, and Sri Lanka’s Catholic leadership have been at the forefront calling for an independent investigation and the involvement of the international community. Cardinal Matteo Zuppi, Archbishop of Bologna in Italy, has pledged support for the cause and joined their call to “stand together for justice”.

Oblate Father Rohan Silva, executive director of the Centre of Society and Religion in Colombo, was here in the weeks leading up to the 5th anniversary of the massacre, to commemorate the victims with the large Sri Lankan community in Italy, and to meet with Cardinal Zuppi, who has assured the Church in the South Asian island nation of his commitment. 

In an interview with Vatican News, Fr Silva explained that the Centre he heads in Colombo is dedicated to promoting human rights, justice, and peace, and includes a team dedicated to the pursuit of justice for the victims of the bombings, their families and the people of Sri Lanka.

The mother of two of the victims of the attacks in her home in Colombo

The mother of two of the victims of the attacks in her home in Colombo

Justice has never been served

In the five years since the bombings, justice has remained elusive, he said, noting that “despite numerous investigative reports and commissions,” the truth behind the attacks and the extent of the conspiracy remains shrouded in ambiguity.

Highlighting the various investigative reports commissioned by the government, from the Malalgoda report to the Parliamentary Select Committee findings to the Presidential Commission report, the Oblate priest noted that despite these efforts, justice has never been served, and remains overshadowed by allegations of political interference and a lack of thorough investigation.

“Justice has never been meted out.”

Fr Silva explained that all the investigations carried out, many of them comprised of members of the parliament, have led to allegations of political interference and lack of transparency. It is widely acknowledged, he said, that initial warnings received by intelligence agencies before the attacks have raised serious questions about the government’s failure to prevent the tragedy.

Political motivations behind inaction

The negligence of the authorities in acting on intelligence warnings cannot be overstated, Father Silva emphasized, reiterating that there were clear signs of an imminent threat, yet decisive action was not taken.

“We believe the president, Maithripala Sirisena was informed, but he says he was not informed.”

Thus, he continued, the role of political motivations in shaping the government’s response to the warnings has been a subject of intense scrutiny, and allegations have surfaced regarding the exploitation of the attacks for political gain, further complicating the search for truth and accountability.

The bombings were not only a tragedy but also a wake-up call for Sri Lanka, Father Silva asserted, as they exposed the vulnerabilities within our society and the urgent need for reforms in governance and security.

“We know that the attacks were capitalized by politicians during the election campaign.”

In the face of continuing economic challenges and political instability, Father Silva emphasized the importance of persevering in the push for impartial investigations and accountability for all those involved, regardless of political affiliations.

The pursuit of justice is not only a moral imperative but also a means of healing and reconciliation, he said, and he noted that it is also essential for restoring faith in the institutions and fostering unity among Sri Lanka’s diverse communities.

Fr Rohan Silva and Cardinal Matteo Zuppi

Fr Rohan Silva and Cardinal Matteo Zuppi

Crucial role of Catholic Church

The Oblate priest upheld the role of the Catholic Church, under the leadership of Cardinal Ranjith, who has played a crucial part in advocating for justice, promoting interfaith dialogue and preventing division and violence. 

“When the massacre took place there could have been bloodshed in the country,” he said, explaining that this was one of the very purposes of the masterminds of the attacks who hoped to instigate anti-Muslim sentiment and manipulate voters.

“And then Malcolm Ranjith came forward and met the Muslim leaders in the area and assured them that that nothing would happen to their community,” he said, “And saved bloodshed, the second bloodshed in the country after the massacre.”

Noting that there continues to be excellent collaboration among the different faith communities in Sri Lanka, Fr Silva expressed concern that political interference could end up creating division.

“Unfortunately, we see that political interference in this could create unnecessary divisions within the community and they [the politicians] could capitalize on this!”

Fr Silva during a Commemorative Mass

Fr Silva during a Commemorative Mass

Fr Silva highlighted the valuable collaboration his team has had with international organizations and the support of the global community in the quest for justice. 

In particular, he said, a partnership with the Human Rights Council in Geneva provides precious support to his team’s efforts.

Standing for justice

Just as the tragic anniversary is marked and commemorated every year, both in Sri Lanka and by Sri Lankan communities across the world, Fr Silva said “It is not simply to light a candle, but to invite people to stand for justice.”

“Every year, we commemorate this event. But it is not to simply light a candle but to invite people to stand for justice.”

A Commemorative Mass

A Commemorative Mass

“In the places where the attacks happened, he continued, “there will be commemorations with the presence of ambassadors and all religious leaders” who will light candles and promise to work together to bring justice.

“There will be a procession to mark the event, and the demand to the government to continue to do this investigation impartially… they say it is over, but it is not, and we know that!”, he remarked.

Father Silva reiterated his invitation to all Sri Lankans to continue to put pressure on their leaders and expressed gratitude to Cardinal Zuppi “and a group of concerned people” whom he met on 8 April here in Italy.

“He [the Cardinal] welcomed us and said he is happy to be part of this struggle and will support us in whatever way possible to bring about justice,” he said, stating that there are plans for a meeting between him and Cardinal Ranjith in Colombo in the future, that will hopefully also bring the support of the Italian government.

Cardinal Zuppi, he concluded, will also be celebrating the Commemoration Mass on 21 April in Bologna Cathedral, with the Sri Lankan community.

“We believe that will be of great support for our people, and we believe that that same support will come from others too.”

Fr Rohan Silva and Cardinal Matteo Zuppi

Fr Rohan Silva and Cardinal Matteo Zuppi

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