Fr. Joseph Chandrakanthan

Toronto’s Tamil Catholics reeling from Sri Lanka bombings

  • April 23, 2019

As the death toll hit 321 with an estimated 500 injured, members of Toronto’s large Tamil Catholic community were tracking down friends and relatives who might have been attending Easter Sunday Mass in Sri Lanka when bombs exploded at St. Anthony’s Shrine in Colombo or St. Sebastian’s Church in Negombo.

News of the suicide bombings that also killed worshippers at the Evangelical Zion Church in the eastern coastal city of Batticaloa, plus three hotels in Colombo, reached Toronto Tamils as they were finishing their Easter Vigil celebrations at Immaculate Heart of Mary Church in the city’s east end.

“The mood completely turned form a celebratory mood to trying to find out whether their family members were OK, whether relatives were OK,” said Our Lady of Good Health parishioner Jude Aloysius. The Tamil parish of Our Lady of Good Health gathers at Immaculate Heart of Mary.

On  April 25, at 7:30 p.m. the Tamil community will gather once again at Immaculate Heart of Mary, 131 Birchmount Road, for a memorial Mass with Cardinal Thomas Collins presiding.

“The slaughter of innocent families in a place of worship is particularly heinous,” the Cardinal said in a statement issued from the Archdiocese of Toronto. “I invite all of the faithful in the Archdiocese of Toronto to lift our collective voices in prayer for the hundreds killed and injured.”

That same evening the downtown Tamil community will gather for an interfaith vigil at Our Lady of Lourdes at 5:30 p.m. The “Ring of Peace” service will surround the church and offer prayers from Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Anglican and other Toronto faith leaders.

Theologian and bioethicist Fr. Joseph Chandrakanthan has been in touch with old friends in Sri Lanka and found the community there reeling.

“There is a deep sense of fear and a sense of despair,” Chandrakanthan said. “Particularly because of the day on which it has happened… It was human cruelty and horror that has taken away their whole sense of hope and trust.”

During Sri Lanka’s long civil war, Chandrakanthan worked with the present-day pastor of St. Anthony’s in Colombo, Fr. Leo Pereira. As the first funerals were being organized, Chandrakanthan spoke to his old friend by telephone.

“He’s speechless,” Chandrakanthan told The Catholic Register. “In fact I struggle Joseph for words (Pereira said). That was his feeling. He has not recovered from the shock of things, it was such a devastating trauma.”

Having endured 30 years of religiously tinged violence during the 26-year-long civil war that ended in 2009, Sri Lankan Catholics are left to wonder why they have been targeted. During the war the Buddhist majority-backed government in Colombo had fought against the mainly Hindu Tamil Tigers, with the smaller Muslim minority only ever a secondary target. The Christians, who come to just 7.6 per cent of Sri Lanka’s population, were mainly collateral damage.

“That’s what we’re wondering, why the Catholics?” said Aloysius. “Why at a church?”

Long-simmering exclusion and poverty may help to explain why some Muslim Tamils would lash out, Chandrakanthan said. 

“When people are poor and there is no way of attaining some form of advancement, they become easy targets, easy prey, for fundamentalist elements to be trained, to be brainwashed to do such things,” he said.

Add into the mix the increasingly polarized politics throughout South Asia, in which religious identity is a constant, background issue, and it’s a recipe for violence, Chandrakanthan said.

“Then of course religious militancy on the Hindu side is growing in India – as opposed to Buddhist and Muslim militancy,” he said. “South Asia is going through a form of resurgence which is tapping the extremist feelings, and the rampant poverty is in fact fuelling these things.”

Given Sri Lanka’s history and the weakness of the political elite, Chandrakanthan is worried about the future of the country.

“My fear is that this seems to be a starting point,” he said. “And where it will end we do not know.”

In Toronto the immediate task ahead of Tamils will be to mourn, said Aloysius.

“We’re trying to get the message out, to then let all the community members know, it’s time for the community to come together, to grieve and to pray,” he said.

The Sri Lankan government has named two Sri Lankan militant Islamic organizations, the National Thowheeth Jama’ath and Jammiyathul Millathu Ibrahim, as perpetrators of the highly co-ordinated bombings. The Islamic State has claimed responsibility through its news agency Amaq, but the wording does not make it clear whether the Iraqi and Syrian-based organization was actually involved in planning the attacks or simply associating them with its long-standing call for Muslims to mount attacks in their home countries.

Sri Lanka’s junior defence minister has told the parliament in Colombo the attack was in retaliation for the New Zealand mosque shootings that killed 50 Muslim worshippers in Christchurch on March 15 this year. 

Sri Lanka’s most senior Catholic figure, Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith has scolded the government of Sri Lanka for failing to act on intelligence it received weeks before the attack warning of militant activity in the Muslim community.

“Strengthen the state intelligence services,” Ranjith told a press conference on April 22. “We were informed that the Easter Sunday attacks could have been avoided if the government had acted on the prior information.”

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