As It Happens

Sri Lankan archbishop would have cancelled Easter services if he'd known the risks

"I would have cancelled even the holy week itself," says Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith.

'I would have cancelled even the holy week itself,' says Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith

A person mourns at a grave of a victim two days after a string of suicide bomb attacks on churches and luxury hotels across Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday. (Athit Perawongmetha/Reuters)
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The Archbishop of Colombo says Sri Lanka's top government officials should be "immediately sacked" in the wake of the Easter bombings.

ISIS has claimed responsibility for the bombings at churches and hotels that left at least 359 people dead over the weekend, but offered no evidence to back up the claim.

In the weeks leading up to the attack, Indian intelligence officials tipped off their Sri Lankan counterparts that attacks by Islamists were imminent, sources with direct knowledge of the matter told Reuters. One of those warnings reportedly came just hours before the first strike. 

The country's feuding president and prime minister have both said the information never crossed their desks. President Maithripala Sirisena said he would change the heads of the defence forces following their failure to act on the intelligence.

Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith decried what he calls "absolutely unacceptable behaviour" by government officials. Here is part of the archbishop's conversation with As It Happens host Carol Off. 

Cardinal Ranjith, what can you possibly say to people who have lost loved ones in these attacks in Sri Lanka?

Really, there is nothing much that I can say because I, myself, am affected by this. 

I mean, entire families have been wiped out — husbands, wives, children and parents and grandparents. And it's tremendous, you know. We just can't imagine the suffering that had been heaped on human beings by this kind of activity.

The pictures I've seen are of people burying their loved ones in large groups. The funerals are being done in groups. And so many children — so many small coffins of the kids who died. And people's grief, it's just so palpable.

I went and solemnized two funerals. One in Negombo, where there were two families where five people were killed in the same two families.

And then in the afternoon, I went to a funeral where a father, mother and two daughters were killed. So it was tremendous pain for people to see this.

Malcolm Ranjith, Archbishop of Colombo, leads mass at the San Lorenzo In Lucino church in Rome March 10, 2013. (Chris Helgren/Reuters)

I'm wondering what you are thinking when you hear that the authorities, the highest offices of Sri Lanka, had information — perhaps they didn't pass it on to those who could have done something — but they had warnings, several warnings, one of them [a] quite detailed written brief that described the names of people, the names of organizations and said that there was a plan to attack Catholic churches. When you heard that news, what did you think?

It's absolutely unacceptable behaviour on the part of these high officials of the government, including some of the ministry officials.

I was shocked to hear the interview with [Defence Secretary Hemasiri Fernando], who sort of, you know, answered the questions in a slipshod manner, as if he has not felt any responsibility, any weight of what has happened to our people.

These kind of officials should be immediately sacked, removed from these positions. And human beings who have a feeling for the needs of others and for the people must be inserted into these positions.

If they had told you, warned you about this, especially for Easter Sunday, what would you have done?

I would have cancelled because, for me, the most important thing is human life. Human beings, they are our treasure.

All church services for Easter Sunday would have been cancelled had you been given this...

I would have cancelled even the holy week itself. 

People cry out in mourning during a mass burial of victims of the Sri Lanka Easter attacks. (Dinuka Liyanawatt/Reuters)

ISIS, the Islamic State, has claimed responsibility for the attack. What do you make of that? How do you react to that admission?

I'm so sad about it because, you know, the word Islamic is something that speaks about peace. Salam is peace in Arabic.

So an organization that calls itself Islamic and representing a religion that is all full of thoughts of peace, for them to make use of Islam, that very thought, in order to murder people — innocent people, not those who raise their guns against them or came to fight with them — but people who are absolutely innocent, who had nothing to do with them.

Sri Lankan authorities are saying that these bombings may have been in retaliation for the attacks on the mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. What do you make of that?

We had nothing to do with those murders. I mean, I cannot understand the logic of this whole argument, you know? I mean, what is the connection that we have for those massacres?

We have protected and safeguarded the rights of our Muslim brothers and sisters here in Sri Lanka. We have lived together with these Muslim brothers and sisters in peace and harmony.

Why should they now attack us in the name of a religion that stands for peace? And in the name of a people, a religious people like the Muslims in Sri Lanka, who have been very peacefully living with us, coexisting with us? Why should our innocent people suffer for this reason? We have not raised one hand to strike them. What is the reason? We can't understand this.

I know how much you are trying to help your Catholics and Christians who are struggling with this. I wonder for yourself, Cardinal, how are you coping with these deaths?

It's tremendous pressure because there are no words with which I can console my people. I don't know what to say to them. I try. I tried to go to their funerals and I tried to embrace them and tell them I am with them, but I have no words to say. I am suffering with them.

Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from Reuters. Produced by Chris Harbord. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.