In Sri Lanka’s ‘Little Rome,’ anger and apprehension as villagers bury their dead


NEGOMBO, Sri Lanka – A row of bulldozers stood next to two dozen fresh mounds of red dirt Tuesday morning. Thin wooden crosses identified the remains below – all victims of the Easter Sunday bombing at St. Sebastian’s Catholic Church – not with names but with numbers.

Two caskets are carried following a funeral service for victims of the Easter Sunday bombings on April 23, 2019, at St.Sebastian’s church in Negombo, Sri Lanka. MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Asanka Brendon Ratnayake

Rajita Rodrigo, 33, a public accountant, prayed silently as he stood over the mass burial site. He had not lost a relative or close friend, he said, but was praying for something else – the future of his community and country, the right way to respond to the unspeakable violence, and the contradiction between Christian teachings and the way he and many others are feeling.

“We are really angry,” Rodrigo said. “We are angry at the people who did this, and we are angry at the officials who were given some warning of the attacks but did not inform anyone, not even the church leaders. If they had, we would not be here today, burying so many people.”

The Catholic community around St. Sebastian, known as “Little Rome,” buried many of its dead Tuesday, wrenched between sorrow, fear and anger as the death toll nationwide rose to 321 and the Islamic State claimed responsibility for the coordinated bombings at six churches and hotels across the country Sunday.

Rodrigo said faith had taught his community to stay calm and avoid confrontation, to forgive rather than blame. “We have done that. We have been calm, and we are still calm,” he said. “We are not in a rush to fight. But we should have been warned. What the government did was very wrong.”

In a tent outside the badly damaged church, senior church leaders including Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, the archbishop of Colombo, gathered for a memorial ceremony and blessing in the morning, attended by more than 500 white-robed priests. Thick lines of police guarded the streets and searched every visitor entering the church grounds and nearby cemetery.

But like the mood of the Christian community, the messages from church officials reflected a confused, evolving mixture of outrage and anger, forgiveness and fear.

Ranjith, the highest-ranking Catholic official in Sri Lanka, called on the government to hunt down the attackers and “punish them mercilessly, because only animals can behave like that.” At the same time, he advised civilians “not to take the law into their own hands” and to “maintain peace and harmony.”

Afterward, coffins were hoisted and throngs of people followed them on foot through winding tropical lanes to several burial sites. They walked slowly, holding parasols against the strong sun, and many seemed to be wrestling with their emotions and opinions.

Mourners congregate around graves as two burials take place on April 23, 2019, at the Selekanda Catholic cemetery near Negombo, Sri Lanka. MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Asanka Brendon Ratnayake

Dozens of priests flooded the community after the ceremony at St. Sebastian’s, which celebrated its 150th anniversary this year. Many visited private homes and offered blessings at burials in other graveyards, while family members stood among the gravestones, reciting the Lord’s Prayer and singing hymns in Sinhalese.

The clerics, too, seemed torn about how to reconcile their spiritual values with their feelings of betrayal and what they saw as indifference by Sri Lankan officials, who are reported to have received details about possible attacks two weeks ago but decided not to make the information public.

“We know that no place in the world is secure, that radicalism does not follow the rule of love,” the Rev. Mahendra Gunetiliki, one of the priests visiting Negombo, said Tuesday. “But the government cannot wash its hands of this. The group who did these blasts is responsible for them, but the government showed great neglect.”

Standing at the edge of the mass burial site, Amjud Dissilla pointed to a wooden cross atop one new grave, with the number 22 taped to it.

Catholic nuns during a funeral service for victims of the Easter Sunday bombings on April 23, 2019, at St. Sebastian’s church in Negombo, Sri Lanka. MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Asanka Brendon Ratnayake

“That is my mother-in-law. Her name was Mary Margaret,” said Dissilla, 36, a sales executive. “My daughter was supposed to go with her to church on Easter, but at the last minute she didn’t. I am happy for that, but I can still see all those bodies in the church, those people barely alive, begging for help.”

Dissilla stared at the ground, deep in thought. He said he was recalling the long civil war between ethnic Tamil rebels and the Sri Lankan government, which ended in 2009.

“During the war, security was very strict, but after it was over, a lot of freedom came,” he said. “Someone has taken advantage of that freedom. They have used it to organize and kill people. They are still organizing,” he added grimly. “This is not finished.”



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