FOUR months after Islamist terrorists killed 263 people in churches and hotels, the Archbishop of Canterbury has arrived in Sri Lanka to pay tribute to the victims and stand in solidarity with the people.
He began his three-day visit to the country on Thursday by going to St Sebastian’s, Negombo, a Roman Catholic church where more than 100 people died in the attacks.
“When they come to kill us, do they ask if we are Anglicans or Pentecost or Presbyterian or Catholic? They ask only if we are Christian,” he said, quoting the Preacher to the Papal Household, Fr Raniero Cantalamessa (News, 20 November 2015).
“So when, on Easter morning, I heard of the terrible events in this church and other places in Sri Lanka, we knew that our sisters and brothers have been killed and wounded, and we kept silence and prayed for you.”
The visit was reported by Associated Press (AP).
The Archbishop was welcomed by the RC Archbishop of Colombo, Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, who, in the wake of the suicide bombings, called on the Government to punish the perpetrators “mercilessly” (News, 26 April).
Pointing to a blood-stained statue of Christ kept in a glass enclosure, Archbishop Welby said: “When I see this statue, this image of Christ covered with the blood of the martyrs, I know by that the courage, your faith, and your love. I see the true Christ. Not the Christ who is distant and clean, but the Christ who is covered in his own and our blood.”
He praised the Sri Lankan Christians for displaying restraint in the aftermath of the attacks.
“To come before you, I am almost without words; for I can only say thank you to the Christians of Sri Lanka.
“We know that the Christ who on the cross said ‘Father forgive’ knows our anger, your pain, your sorrow and we know that through his resurrection even that anger and sorrow and pain will be transformed in purity to hope.”
He also visited the Cinnamon Grand Hotel, another target of the bombers, and met the Sri Lankan Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe. After meeting heads of churches and interfaith leaders in the city, he presided at a eucharist in the Anglican Cathedral, Christ the Living Saviour, Colombo. The Church of Ceylon has two dioceses: Colombo and Kurunegala.
AP’s report of the interfaith meeting said that the Archbishop had told the gathering that discussions among faiths had become harder in the past 30 to 40 years, and that extremist attitudes had grown in each faith, including Christianity.
He reiterated previous comments challenging attempts to disown extremist elements (News, 9 October 2015): “It is the duty of every religious tradition, for its leaders, to resist extremism and to teach peaceful dialogue. So the first challenge to all of us is take responsibility. If a Christian does something evil, it is not for me to say ‘Well, they are not a real Christian.’ I have to ask myself: ‘What is within my faith tradition, our historic teaching, that makes it easy for them to do that?’
“The second challenge in dialogue is honesty. Dialogue is where we are honest, where we open the door of our heart and say it is this that frightens me about you, or this that I disagree with you about.
“Whether Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist — whatever faith — society calls us to account, and I believe that God calls us to account at the end of time. Have you been builders of peace or builders of pain?”
After the Easter attacks, Islamic clerics declared that the suicide bombers and those who killed themselves to avoid capture did not belong to the Muslim faith, and refused them burial in Islamic burial grounds. Their children were buried with Islamic rituals.
The Archbishop’s itinerary includes meetings with senior Buddhist monks and a visit to the Theological College of Lanka, in Pilimathalawa, Kandy, which is an ecumenical institution training clergy and ministers for the country’s Anglican, Methodist, Baptist, and Presbyterian Churches.
He will fly to India on Saturday to begin a ten-day trip across seven cities and towns. In a briefing for journalists, the Archbishop’s interfaith adviser, the Revd Dr Richard Sudworth, expressed a cautious attitude about speaking about persecution of Christians in India. The Archbishop would raise concerns “appropriately, but with a listening and humble ear” (News, 2 August).
Archbishop Welby’s visit coincides with unrest in Kashmir, after the Indian government’s removal of the region’s partial autonomy three weeks ago. Internet and mobile networks have mostly been blocked, and hundreds of people have been detained (News, 15 August).