Sheikh Abdul Rahman: Two Muslim children killed together with their Christian friends in Negombo
by Melani Manel Perera

The two little Muslims had gone to mass with their little friends on the feast day in the church of St Sebastian, struck by the terrorist attack at Easter. The Islamic and Catholic communities of Negombo have strong bonds of friendship. The fear of an inter-ethnic and inter-religious division that makes the country go back to the civil war. In the name of security, Islamic women should not wear the burqa. Sheikh Abdul Rahman, social worker, is a collaborator of Caritas Colombo.

Katuwapitiya (AsiaNews) - A Muslim girl and a boy died along with their Christian friends in the April 21 explosion that targeted the Church of St. Sebastian in Katuwapitiya (Negombo), a few kilometers from Colombo. Sheikh Abdul Rahman (photo 1) tells AsiaNews that he lives near the church hit by the terrorist attack, where at least 180 people have died.

"The little girl - continues Sheikh Abdul - had gone to Mass with her Catholic friend and the little boy had gone to Mass accompanied by his mother, since his mother is Catholic. According to the Islamic rite, their funerals took place as soon as possible, one day before that of the Catholic faithful".

The news of these two Muslim children killed together with the dozens of Catholic children in the massacres that took place in the country on Easter Day, is a poignant sign of the friendly coexistence that has existed so far between the two religious communities, which, however, is now put at risk by the gestures of fundamentalist terror, sowing fear and suspicion.

Sheikh Abdul Rahman, 56, is a social worker and a member of the group for interreligious dialogue, linked to the Caritas Colombo Center for Human Development.  In an interview with AsiaNews, he expresses "the deepest participation" in the suffering of Christians and asks everyone for "the courage to remain together as a family united in our grief". He appeals to his "brothers and sisters of Sri Lanka" not to "carry out vendettas" because otherwise "it will be easy for those extremists to destroy Sri Lanka, destroy our innocent lives, destroy our beautiful coexistence that we have enjoyed so far".

Below our interview with Sheikh Abdul.

What do you think of this sad situation?

As a Muslim, I would like to express the deepest participation for all those who have lost their innocent lives, and I would like to wish their family members the courage to endure this pain and this loss. We profoundly feel this tragedy, as if the dead were part of our own family, given that we live as sisters and brothers in this society, with Buddhists and with Christians. It is really difficult to carry all of this pain.

We need to understand what has happened and act wisely. What happened is not a blow to the Christian community, it is a blow to our unity, to our coexistence. In all this I see the project of some people to re-open the path of anger, revenge and fear in the country, to create a terrifying situation in the nation. After 30 years of suffering [for the civil war], we were now beginning to enjoy harmony among the many ethnic groups and religions present.

It is also very upsetting that our civil authorities underestimated information about the activities of that self-styled Muslim group. They played with danger, with lives of innocent Christians in three churches and those who were in the three hotels. Why didn't they take that message seriously, acting accordingly? We have so many suspicions now about them.

But does the Koran justify these killings? Is it a way of spreading the Islamic faith?

No! Never! We condemn [these killings]. It is completely against the Koran and against the words of the Prophet Nabbi. He never approved any violence. In the Koran it is said that if someone kills a person, it is as if he had killed the whole society. Even if they dress like a Muslim, if they have Islamic names, how can they be called true Muslims if they kill and do such horrible things? We cannot call them Muslims.

After this tragedy, the other communities, Sinhalese and Tamil began to look suspiciously at Muslims. What are your thoughts on this?

Bad and evil things happened. What you describe is the natural reaction of human minds. It will take time to correct this position and return to treating Muslims as in the past, as brothers and sisters.

[As in the times of the civil war] not all Tamils ​​were terrorists. Not all Buddhists are extremists. Similarly, not all Muslims are terrorists. Therefore, I, as a Muslim, as a sheikh, ask my dear sisters and brothers in Sri Lanka, to look at us with an open mind. Live with us as you have lived so far. Respect humanity. Do not try to take revenge, to be aggressive towards us. If that happens, it will be very easy for those extremists to destroy our Sri Lanka, destroy our innocent lives, destroy our beautiful coexistence that we have enjoyed so far.

What can we do to rebuild coexistence among our people?

People respect their leaders a lot. Therefore, our religious leaders should sit together and plan out how they can boost awareness. Without mental limitations, try to make people aware and let them share in the cause of a united Sri Lanka.

I would also like to say that in our country there are many, many Christians and Buddhists who look at things wisely and openly. They should help us Muslims. Christian and Buddhist leaders should help us Muslims to correct the false attitudes in some people's minds. Otherwise our country will regress and once again the people of this country will start fighting anew.

With this tragedy, we Muslims are more vulnerable, more desperate. Women have some difficulties ... they can't even leave the house ... The criticism grows. The men who have beards have difficulties: everyone looks at us with suspicion. Therefore, stop these unpleasant actions; religious leaders play a better and more important role than government, because the word of a Christian priest, or a nun, or a Buddhist monk is much more powerful.

What can the Muslim community do for the victims of Katuwapitiya?

We want to help those families. But our habits and people's suspicion are an obstacle to our good intentions. The [Catholic] priests have asked us not to participate for the moment. And we can understand this.

Meanwhile we are discussing how we can help affected families. All we can do for the families of Katuwapitiya, we will do it together with the parish priest and the archbishop.

We are also preparing a declaration to communicate our condolences and respect. We hope to give this letter to the pastor of our area, to read it after the mass.

Yesterday we also held an interfaith prayer for all those who sacrificed their lives in the church. We held this moment in the main mosque in Kamachchode: some flowers, lit candles, prayers, short speeches by Catholic priests and other religious leaders (see photos 2 and 3).

Even a Muslim girl and a boy died in the church explosion. The  little girl had gone to Mass with her Catholic friend and the  little boy had gone with his mother, because his mother is Catholic. According to the Islamic rite, their funerals took place as soon as possible, one day before that of the Catholic faithful.

Finally, I would like to say that the media have a great responsibility in giving people correct and useful information to protect our society. Their work should be to unite the people, not to divide it.

At this time the burqa, the niqab or the hijab, the dress of Muslim women is becoming a serious problem in Sri Lanka. What do you think?

Wearing a burqa, or hijab, is a right for a Muslim woman, but as you point out it has become a serious problem in the country due to the emergency situation. Therefore, we Muslims must think broadly and come to a reasonable conclusion. For the peace and protection of our country and our people, we must abandon some good practices and obey the rules of the nation.

Some Islamic scholars say Muslim women should cover their faces, others say it is not necessary. I think the question of the burqa is a personal matter. Some of the most devoted women use the burqa, but it is not an essential subject. For our women, not wearing the burqa is something that disturbs them, they feel like they're naked. But at this point, taking into consideration the dangerous situation of the country, we Muslims have a great responsibility to help the security of the people and the country. For this reason, our Muslim women should not protest, because this [not wearing the burqa - ed] is an aid to ensure national security.