The Easter bombings in Sri Lanka left the Pontifical Mission Societies in that country responsible for the safety, upbringing and education of 271 children who lost at least one parent to co-ordinated terrorist attacks on Christians and foreign tourists.
Through the Holy Child Movement, adivision of the global Pontifical Mission Societies, Fr. Basil Rohan Fernando is trying to come up with scholarship money that can assure the sudden orphans of this past Easter will at least complete Grade 12.
“We want to help them to complete their studies, because there’s nobody (else to pay their school fees),” Fernando told The Catholic Register on a visit to Toronto.
The scholarship fund was established by Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, archbishop of Colombo.
“It’s a long-term program. If a child is in Grade 2, he has to go up to Grade 12, so it’s a 10-year program,” Fernando said.
Fixing the damaged churches and taking care of the injured and orphans is a necessary step in response to the bombings that killed 258 people, including 45 foreign nationals in a storm of bombings across the island nation April 21. The bombers, claiming allegiance to the Islamic State, hit St. Anthony’s Shrine in the capital of Colombo, St. Sebastian’s Church in the heavily Catholic town of Negombo, and the Protestant Zion Church in the eastern, mainly Tamil town of Batticaloa. In addition, they targeted Sri Lanka’s vital tourist industry by bombing four luxury hotels in Colombo. A housing complex in the suburb of Dematagoda was also bombed.
“I personally went to the place (St. Anthony’s Shrine) immediately after it happened,” said Fernando. “When you see that — the flesh is everywhere, you get the smell as you are just walking at a distance, you get the smell of the flesh, everywhere blood — you feel, this is our people. I’m a priest, so you feel that these are our people.”
Fernando takes pride in the calm and mostly peaceful reaction of the Catholic community under the leadership of Ranjith.
“The Catholic Church has to be strong enough to stand and to say no (to violence and retribution),” he said.
The role that priests and bishops have played in calling for dialogue and interfaith harmony after the bombings shows the need for more and better seminary training in Sri Lanka, said Fernando. Sri Lanka is going through a boom in vocations and struggling to house and educate all the would-be priests.
He is trying to raise money to fund a minor seminary in Trincomalee, renovate the minor seminary in Colombo and fund seminary education for poor seminarians who come to Colombo from smaller dioceses.
“The Catholic Church is playing a major role at the moment to bring peace and harmony in the country, to respect each other in their religious background, in their languages and the nation,” Fernando said.
In multi-ethnic and multi-religious Sri Lanka, the task of interfaith dialogue is a matter of nation building, according to St. Augustine’s Seminary sessional lecturer Joseph Chandrakanthan. He believes the Catholic minority (about six per cent of Sri Lanka’s 23 million people) needs to do much more in a country where ethnic and religious identity trumps citizenship and gets in the way of democratic values.
“The Buddhist-Christian understanding and cordiality is at a surface level. There’s no depth to the relationship. There’s no deep interreligious dialogue,” he said.
Without serious interfaith dialogue, Chandrakanthan fears Catholics will play into the hands of a cynical political class that survives by playing religions and ethnic communities off against each other.
“They’re following the old British policy of divide and rule,” he said.
Fernando believes that at the level of ordinary citizens, Sri Lanka has already achieved harmony among its Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist and Christian populations.
“It’s true we don’t have a stable government — politically,” he said. “But apart from that, people were living in peace and harmony.”
For Sri Lanka’s Catholics, building a future means building Catholic institutions, particularly the institutions that will train the next generation of priests, Fernando said.
“We have a big mission to do in Sri Lanka,” he said. “We need priests. We need leaders. That is the main thing at the seminary.”
Contributions to the Holy Child Association, the Society of St. Peter the Apostle and Propagation of the Faith to support orphans and seminarians in Sri Lanka can be made at www.missionsocieties.ca.