Caritas: priest to help families rebuild their shattered lives
by Anna Chiara Filice

Fr Mahendra Gunatilleke talks about the Easter Sunday attacks, which "were a devastating blow”. As a result, people began to wonder about God’s existence. Trust between communities must be rebuilt and Muslims must be integrated.

Rome (AsiaNews) – Fr Mahendra Gunatilleke is the national secretary of Caritas Sri Lanka. He travelled to Rome for the 21st General Assembly of Caritas Internationalis (23-28 May).

After the Easter Sunday attacks, "people did not want to talk because they were too devastated. The only thing they asked was to pray with them. So we decided to assign a priest or a nun to each family to guard the spirit of these families and accompany them on a journey” of prayer. “We didn’t want them to feel alone.”

Speaking to AsiaNews about the sense of hopelessness that followed the attacks against three churches during Sunday masses and in three hotels at breakfast, he said that various steps were taken to rebuild survivors’ faith and heal their physical wounds with some certainty.

"I am convinced,” he explained, “that if a community is accompanied from a pastoral, spiritual, psychological point of view, and people remain together, the recovery will be faster.”

The Church attacks "were a devastating blow, coming a few days before the tenth anniversary of the end of the civil war, on which we were all concentrated."

In the aftermath of the carnage that claimed the lives of 257 people, "people felt desperate, obsessively repeating ‘Why did all this happen? I lost my family; I don't want to wake up in the morning. I don't need to go to church. God does not exist.'"

"We worked hard to rebuild trust between people after interfaith ties had been shattered. There are physical wounds that have to heal, but also mental and psychological scars that are even more difficult to overcome.”

Faced with such a brutal tragedy, Caritas reacted swiftly, providing assistance to the wounded and survivors, Catholics and Protestants. Some results are already visible.

“We set up a psycho-social pastoral outreach desk with volunteers who provide legal and psychological support. Now we want to work on short and long-term programmes to ensure livelihoods, education, and medical assistance."

Aid has gone to at least 150 people among the relatives of the dead and some 600 families of those who were wounded. Regarding funding, "we can count on the Caritas family and Catholic partners. But we would like to link benefactors and affected families, with the former sponsoring the latter for a number of years.”

“Thus far we have received the support of many families, but we must still have to work on coordinating all this."

In Batticaloa Caritas is also helping the local Protestant community whose place of worship, Zion Church, was one of the churches attacked. Last “Friday, some of us handed out some money,” said Fr Mahendra, “some 50,000 rupees (US$ 285) per family.”

“In Colombo, Catholics are already covered thanks to money raised by Card Malcolm Ranjth and delivered to the local Caritas-Sedec. The cardinal expressed his solidarity towards us and we brought it to the Christians of Batticaloa."

Finally, Christians and Muslims living on the eastern part of the island should not be forgotten. "It is from there, from Kattankudi, that militants with the National Thowheed Jamath responsible for the massacres came from. Everyone knows that in recent years the radical ideology spread to the area, with ties not only with the Islamic State, but also with preachers from Saudi Arabia. The government has been completely negligent.”

“At the same time, Muslim leaders must understand the value of national reconciliation and peace, and abandon a mindset that is too self-centred and unwilling to integrate. For our part, we shall do everything to bring our Muslim brothers to engage in dialogue again."