Sri Lankan bishops demand answers from president, two years after Easter bombing

Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith of Colombo in his cathedral city, Jan. 13, 2015. / Alan Holdren/CNA.

Colombo, Sri Lanka, Jul 14, 2021 / 14:00 pm (CNA).

In a letter addressed Monday to the president of Sri Lanka, Catholic leaders criticized the “lethargic pace” of a government inquiry into coordinated terrorist attacks on churches that took place on Easter Sunday 2019, and questioned why recommendations brought by an official inquiry into the attacks have not yet been acted upon. 

The July 12 letter was signed by Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith of Colombo, as well as several other bishops and nearly 30 priests. The signers gave the president, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, one month to respond to the letter. 

More than 260 people died and over 500 were injured in the coordinated suicide bombings on three churches, four hotels, and one housing complex on Easter Sunday in April 2019. Several of the bombings took place amid Masses and services. 

Foreign intelligence warned the government ahead of the bombings, but a power struggle and a communication breakdown between the then-president and prime minister reportedly led to a failure to coordinate a security response. 

In the July letter, the signers noted that in the two years since the attacks, the nation’s attorney general has failed to bring charges against numerous officials whose negligence, in part, allowed the attacks to occur. 

They also questioned whether the current 42 suspects in the case include the masterminds of the attack, warning that the “big brains” behind the attack may be escaping justice. 

Cardinal Ranjith noted that the nation’s former attorney general had described the bombings as a “grand conspiracy,” and Ranjith demanded that the matter be fully investigated and that the findings be shared with the public. 

“[I]f truth and justice cannot be assured in a satisfactory manner in this matter by the Government and this issue is dealt with rather superficially, we will be forced to agitate for such through alternative means,” he concluded. 

Cardinal Ranjith did not specify what those alternative means might be, but he has discussed the possibility of street protests in the past. 

Sri Lanka is an island nation in the Indian Ocean of more than 21 million people, of which some 1.5 million are Catholic, constituting the overwhelming majority of Sri Lanka’s Christians.

Sri Lanka’s President Gotabaya Rajapaksa won election in 2019 while promising to find the truth of the attacks. His government previously accused a Muslim clergyman, who had been arrested after the attacks, of being the organizer, while Catholic leaders rejected this claim and suspected foreign involvement.

Today, the attacks are believed to have been carried out by two local radical Islamist groups, including National Thowheeth Jama’ath, who had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State.

The Presidential Commission of Inquiry completed its final report in February 2021 but did not release its findings to the public.

Instead, Rajapaksa appointed a new six-member committee to study the report without first sharing it with the Church, or with the attorney general to prosecute suspects.

Cardinal Ranjith obtained a copy of the COI report the following month, Asia News reported. 

Among the COI’s findings was what it described as “criminal liability” on the part of then-president Maithripala Sirisena, who left office in November 2019 and is now a member of parliament, and recommended that the attorney general draw up charges against him. No such criminal proceedings have yet taken place. 

Several other government and law enforcement officials were indicted in the COI report as “criminally liable” in the attacks, but the letter notes that these officials have not been charged and in some cases have received promotions— a situation the signers of the letter called “totally unacceptable and amounts to a ridiculing of the rule of law.”

“It is also an act of callous disregard and of inhumanity towards those human beings who lost their precious lives in the attacks and those who were maimed for life and the suffering caused to their families,” the signers wrote. 

The COI report also criticized former prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe for an apparent “lax approach” to Islamic extremism in the country, but did not make any criminal recommendations against him. 

“It is our view that the recommendations made by the COI should be urgently carried out and without fail. Yet, the fact that only a few of these recommendations have actually been carried out causes us grave disillusionment,” the letter continues. 

The Archbishop of Colombo has been pushing for Sri Lankan authorities to be held responsible for failing to prevent the bombings following the completion of the COI’s report.

In October 2020, five of seven suspects arrested in connection with the attacks were released by the government, on the stated grounds of lack of evidence.

At that time, Cardinal Ranjith said security officials had confirmed to him that there was sufficient evidence against many of the suspects who had been arrested. The cardinal, along with friends and family of the victims, have said they fear the release of the suspects meant corruption, or a lack of a thorough investigation, on the part of the Sri Lankan Criminal Investigation Department.

In April 2021, in commemoration of the second anniversary of the attacks, Cardinal Ranjith spoke at St. Anthony’s Shrine, along with Hindu, Buddhist, and Muslim leaders. The service included prayers and two minutes of silence in remembrance of the dead.

That month, police arrested a former cabinet minister and his brother for alleged links to the bombings.

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