Yamini Ravindran

Remarks at the U.S. Department of State's Second Annual Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom

delivered 16 July 2019, Washington, D.C.

Audio AR-XE mp3 of Address


[AUTHENTICITY CERTIFIED: Text version below transcribed directly from audio and lightly edited for readability.]

I'm here to briefly explain to you about the attack that occurred in Sri Lanka in April, the impact that it had on the community, the recovery, and to end with recommendations. And I only have 10 minutes, so I'll keep it brief.

Easter Sunday [is] supposed to be a day of celebration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Most Sunday services would celebrate it with a special service. So this Easter Sunday, Christians in Sri Lanka went to church dressed in their finest clothing. But little did we know that this Easter was going to be different. It was going to permanently change the lives of many.

On April 21st a series of explosions targeting three churches and three 5-star hotels rocked Sri Lanka. It left us with a total death toll [of] over 250, with around 500 injured. Sadly, a large number of children were among the dead.

May 2019 marked a decade since the end of Sri Lanka's 30-year-long civil war which claimed the lives of thousands of people. So, as a nation, we were just getting used to life -- life without violence, without bloodshed. The young children who were the victims of the Easter Sunday attack, could be called the "first generation" -- the first generation where they did not experience war, division, or brutality.

In Batticaloa Zion Church, 14 of 32 were children. They were standing just outside the church premises, right after their Sunday School, having their morning snacks when the bomb went off. And on that fatal day, when the Sunday School teacher questioned them, "How many of you are willing to die for Jesus?" -- almost all of them raised their hands. It [was] tragic. Only [a] few minutes later, this became a reality for many of them. In Negambo, over a hundred were killed. And some homes will never be open because [entire] families have passed away.

And in other places, like the Saint Anthony's Kochchikade Church, some children have lost their parents and some parents have lost all their children.1 So as a nation, the experience of Easter Sunday, it brought back hurtful memories of the past -- the loss of lives, devastation of families, curfews, and widespread fear among the people.

The impact it has had on our community, particularly the Christian community -- it has left us with a fear psychosis like never before. Weeks after the attack, Roman Catholic and Christian churches were closed. Schools were closed. Today we need to go to church with armed guards and security checking. Children go to school with security checking. There is an increase [in] army military officials guarding, checking for explosives. But dealing with the trauma of the victims is the biggest challenge, because some of their lives have changed permanently. Some will never be able to walk, have eyesight, or do anything on their own. Some have been paralyzed permanently.

Emergency regulations, which were only lifted recently in Sri Lanka after 30 years of civil war, ha[ve] been implemented all over again. This has, consequently, left room for churches to be questioned in the guise of providing protection. It has the potential of affecting the churches in Sri Lanka. It has empowered some of the extremist elements, who have become stronger, confident in some of their claims.

I would like to share two stories of victims. One little girl is only six. She has suffered very serious internal and external injuries. She has been through several surgeries. And in one brain surgery that she went through, one of her eye[s] had to be removed; the other eye, she lost sight when the bomb[ing] took place. She is home now. She has been discharged. She lost both her parents. She still doesn't know that she lost both her parents, so her grandmother is looking after her. She keeps questioning. She still doesn't know that she may never be able to see again. She keeps questioning, she keeps asking, "Why is it so dark?"

The second story is of a 13-year-old boy. He went to church that day dressed in his red shirt, best one. And he went to Sunday school, he came out, he met his mother, and he told her, "I'll just have a glass of water and I'll come back." And then the bomb went off. Someone told the mother, "We saw your son." So she kept thinking, "My son is alive. Nothing has happened to him."

After some time, even as she was there and everyone was frantically running, some people, they were talking, people were saying, "You know, in this particular fire, children are being burnt." And in her heart she thought, "My son is okay. Someone saw him, right?" But after some time she couldn't find him and she realized, and she found out later on, that her son was burned to death. And today she's questioning, and she says, "If only I knew. If only I knew my son was in that fire. I was just standing there, I would have run into that fire, and I would have saved him."

So how do we answer such questions? How do we console such people? A 22-year-old girl succumbed to her injuries just last week, and she passed away. But I must say, with the Easter attacks, we have also suffered as a nation. There has been [an] increase in the mistrust between communities -- hate speech, disinformation, very particularly on social media channels, targeting the Muslim community as well. Three weeks after the Easter Sunday bombings, there was also a backlash against the Muslim community.

So how is the community recovering? How are the victims recovering? With regard to [the] recovery process, Sri Lanka -- for Sri Lanka, this is not the first time we have experienced a disaster of such a magnitude. We have been through 30 years of war, tsunami, and insurgencies. Shared by these experiences, the people of Sri Lanka are deeply resilient and compassionate. It's encouraging to see how some have even quit their jobs to look after the injured. There's one young girl in hospital, severely burned. She was supposed to be married this year. Her fiancé's by her side and he says, "For me, love is not only her physical appearance."

The Christian community has reached out to the Muslim community to prevent backlashes. A mother I spoke to from the Batticaloa Zion Church told me her little seven-year-old son, who died, was indeed a special gift from God, and she always knew this. Tears in her eyes, she tells me that,

Even though I'm heartbroken by his death, I know, because of my faith, one day, I am going to see my son. And because of that faith, I'm going to ensure that I live a good life, a righteous life, so that I will see him.

And, she says, "I won't let this discourage me, or question my faith in God."

The Christian community has resumed having its services and masses. Schools have gradually begun. Even though normalcy is getting back -- we are getting back to normalcy -- there is still an element of threat.

And now we have a new challenge, as a Christian community, to face, amidst other persecution trends and challenges as well. The victims of this horrific incident are broken, they're suffering, they're in great pain. However, they are on the path to recovery. I can assure you of that, because they have no hate in their hearts. They have forgiven those responsible for these attacks. I quote Nelson Mandela, "Courageous people do not fear forgiving for the sake of peace."2 And that is what we see in Sri Lanka, and that is what we see within the Christian community, the victims in Sri Lanka.

I'll end with recommendations. How can faith leaders work together to encourage communities to show compassion, and acknowledge the susceptibility to general biases? Faith leaders must work together to counter voices of hate and calls to incite violence from within their own religious communities. They can be more preventive than responsive in their approach, and disseminate positive and affirmative speech to counter hate.

How can governments work together? Governments should work together in holding each other accountable with regard to efforts to promote freedom of religion or belief, safeguard the rights of religious communities to freely practice their faith, while actively supporting efforts to build [the] capacity of state and non-state actors to advance freedom of religion or belief, and to combat extremism in religious, hostile contexts.

And secondly, governments should work together to not only respond when religious liberty violations take place, but also to effectively prevent religious violence and religious liberty violations from taking place; to equip each other, to come up with mechanisms, such as, maybe, as an example, the early warning or early response systems; and to ensure a community, a society, where we do enjoy freedom of religion or belief.

Thank you.

1 Poignant antimetabole

2 Widely attributed online. A scholarly source notes that the quotation occurred during an interview between Nelson Mandela and Anthony Sampson as Mandela prepared to assume the presidency in May of 1994. Cited in Melber H., & Southall, R. (2006). Legacies of Power. Leadership Change and Former Presidents in African Politics, p.28. HSRC Press: Cape Town, South Africa. Available online here.

Speaker Note: Ms. Ravindran is Associate Secretary General/Director Legal & Advocacy for the National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka (NCEASL).

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