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Faith in the time of terror: Ground report from Sri Lanka

Nearly two months after the April attacks, life here is hobbling back to normalcy. Army troops are out in full force and helping rebuild St Sebastian’s. Outside, there are reminders of the tragedy.

world Updated: Jun 14, 2019 20:21 IST
Padma Rao Sundarji
Padma Rao Sundarji
Hindustan Times, Colombo/Negombo
Sri Lanka,Eater bombings,faith
Fathima Joshinka outside the boundary wall of St Sebastian’s church, Negombo, where over 100 people were killed in the Easter bombings on April 21.(HT Photo)

Around 8.15 am on April 21, and as on every Easter Sunday, 44-year-old Ruklanti Peiris was in a hurry. She knew that the main prayer hall of the 1,000-seater St Sebastian’s Church in Negombo would be crowded. The employee of a garment factory let her husband Romal, their two children and her 74-year-old mother-in-law lag behind, and strode ahead herself, hoping to grab space for them.

Meanwhile, a man with a rucksack hurried across the large courtyard of the church, ruffling the head of a child he accidentally bumped into. There was a purpose in his stride. At 8 25 am, he entered the hall and fulfilled it: by pulling a detonator and killing himself. The suicide attack blew off the roof of the church and killed 105 people, including 27 children. And Ruklanti Peiris, the mother of two school students.

Of all the brothers of ringleader and self-proclaimed maulvi, Zahran Hashim, who killed themselves across the country, Mohammed Hashthun who attacked St Sebastian’s, was supposedly the clever one. Much like his diabolical sibling who used the Internet to propagate his call to bloodshed, trained pharmacist Hashthun surfed the Net and assembled the bombs that killed more than 250 people in eight suicide attacks across the island-nation on Easter Sunday.

Negombo is a tiny, prosperous town located close to Sri Lanka’s international airport and about 40km north of the capital Colombo. The overwhelming majority of the 137,000-strong population of the popular beach holiday venue is Roman Catholic. They, along with Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus, have coexisted peacefully even during the worst phases of a 30-year-long civil war that ended in 2009.

Nearly two months after the April attacks, life here is hobbling back to normalcy. Army troops are out in full force and helping rebuild St Sebastian’s. Inside, there is fresh paint and rejuvenation Outside, there are reminders of death. The chapel’s boundary walls are lined with gigantic posters with pictures of those killed; some were babies, barely months old. Passersby of many faiths stream inside to light a candle or offer a prayer at a statue of the soldier saint Sebastian in the courtyard, while army engineers work overtime to complete the renovation work by the end of the month.

An investigation into both the intelligence failure in Colombo as well the links to the Islamic State, which claimed the terror attacks, is on. The Sri Lankan government has issued fresh orders to gather biometrics of maulvis at mosques and copies of all Islamic sermons. There is a ban on face veils, and a periodic one on social media, which proved the chief weapon in the hands of the terrorists of the National Thowheed Jamaath, a local militant group accused of having carried out the blasts. “There is suspicion in the Sinhalese community and fear among the Muslims,” says Ciswan De Croos, episcopal vicar of Negombo. “Muslims are a secluded community. Be it growing Middle Eastern influence or women suddenly taking to hijab, outsiders don’t know enough about what goes on inside that community.”

De Croos has been praised by his Muslim counterparts, the maulvis of Negombo. Within minutes of the attack, the Christian priest requested police to provide security to the Muslims and urged young men of his community to desist from violence.

“There are lots of conspiracy theories about the attacks,” De Croos says. “That they may be the United States’ own plan to create chaos and justify occupying this crucial country in the Indian Ocean, that the Muslims are poisoning the water we drink to render Sinhalese impotent, and so on. But other than a few drunken brawls, there has been no communal violence here.”

At St Sebastian’s, 35-year-old assistant priest Father Sanjiva is in the middle of his counselling day for families of the victims, and is alone because De Croos is indisposed.

“Yes, there is a slight change in people here,” Sanjiva says. “Nobody wants a war. But some people have begun talking about the differences between ‘them’ and ‘us’. I tell them that these attacks were the selfish idea of a few criminals, but that they were a one-time act. It is over. We must move on.”

Negombo coordinator of the Local Inter-Religious Collective (LIRC), Fathima Joshinka, 46, is helped in her work by her name and ethnic origin. Born to a Muslim-Catholic couple, she is a practising Catholic who is adored by her Muslim father’s family and is married to a Tamil Christian. Joshinka grew up in Negombo and concedes that there has been a change. “Some people began by opening madrasas and teaching children a certain ideology different to what was common here. Once the children got interested and influenced, they started building more mosques.”

The powerful militant group of Buddhist monks, the Colombo-based Bodhu Bala Sena (BBS) claims that their warnings fell on deaf ears. “We have been aware of growing Waha’bism in Sri Lanka and have repeatedly pointed it out to the government for the past 8 years. These extremist groups even attacked moderate Muslims and took control of their mosques. And yet, no action was taken. Instead, we were wrongly blamed many times – but please note, never convicted - for attacking Muslims and other minorities,” the CEO of BBS, Dilantha Withenage said.

Negombo’s Town Mosque is on a narrow, crowded street and its cool interiors act as a welcoming shelter to people of all religions – and unveiled women – alike. Abdul Wahab, an affluent businessman, is taking a break along with Suleiman, the mosque’s maulvi. Pain and anger reflect on their faces when asked about the terror attacks.

“What has changed since Easter Sunday? We are afraid,” says Wahab. “Muslims have been in this country for 1,300 years. But there was never such animosity or fear in Sri Lanka before. A handful of criminals have mutilated our peaceful history forever.”

The mention of the alleged mastermind, Zahran Hashim, who preached on a Facebook account and on YouTube, triggers a sharp reaction.

“Who was Zahran Hashmi and how is he a maulvi?” asks 36-year-old Maulvi Suleiman.

“I became one after years of instruction and guidance in reading the Quran under scholars. Can a doctor prescribe medicine he read about on the internet?”

Suleiman is also incensed by the mention of Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, chief of the Islamic State (IS) group. “I carry my father’s name. What is Baghdadi? It is a city’s name. How can IS interpret the Quran selectively? Do you know that the holy book only tells you to defend yourself if attacked? Much like you are told to wear a helmet, but only if you are riding a bike?”

The modest Peiris home is tucked away in a quiet side lane. Coconut palms sway in the breeze, which makes posters of deceased factory worker Ruklanti Peiris on the house’s boundary wall flutter. Her husband is at home with his 11-year-old son, and mother. Romal was a barman in Dubai, but lost his job after being diagnosed with clinical depression. Doctors forbade him to work; Ruklanti was the only bread-earner. They received SLR 10 lakh (about INR 5 lakh) from the government as an ex-gratia payment. Some money came in from church donations too.

The family is facing several problems, but is determined to overcome them. Romal doesn’t know how long the money will last. His 11-year-old son, whom the family do not wish to name, suffers from nightmares and cries out for his mother.

“This terrible crime was committed by a few Muslims,” Romal says. “How can we be angry with all of them? Peace must remain. There must be no fighting.”

First Published: Jun 14, 2019 06:51 IST