The Great Multitude
Updated: Apr 30, 2019
A guest blog contributed by Journey of Hope participant, Ruwani Gunawardene.
It was an unusual Easter Weekend – blazing hot in London with 26 degrees when we woke up to the news of the bombings in Colombo. My older son was just confirming plans to visit Sri Lanka in the first week of May with two of his best friends to share his cultural roots. The developments of the next few days will decide whether this visit will go ahead for him as well as other many travellers making similar plans.
St. Anthony’s Catholic Church is under a mile away from my own church which is down the same road, the original Anglican Cathedral in Colombo, where my family has worshiped for nearly 60 years. Easter services there had carried on as normal. The destruction of a church that was a familiar sight to me whilst growing up in Colombo was heart-breaking. Scores of even non-Christians visit that place of worship to pray to God for healing and all sorts of troubles. When faith in an unseen God who is merciful and providential is the only option that people have, places such St Anthony’s become more than a shrine – a place where you cry out to God for a broken heart, a child seriously unwell, loss of property and scores of other troubles that people face in day to day life. But on this day, they were celebrating the resurrected Christ, the most holiest of days in the Christian calendar when it was brutally cut short by the horrific act of a suicide bomber…
The next day I joined a group of Sri’s Lankan Christians at St John’s Southall to hear a first hand account of the Zion Church, Batticaloa attack. We heard the most heartbreaking story of a Sunday School teacher who asked his kids: “Who would be ready to die for Jesus?” - moments before 16 of them went out to play and were martyred along with the assistant pastor and scores of other families. One might think this was a strange question to ask children – it was because just days before that a family of 6 who were members of the church had died in a car crash and the church was trying to come to terms with the loss
of a worship leader.
The perpetrators chose a Sunday when they knew the churches were packed with
worshippers. The East coast has many Muslim families who were ministered to by the Zion church. They freely come to the church for prayer for healing and when the bomber arrived, saying that he wanted to film the service. Ramesh, the assistant pastor, asked him to remain outside until he collected something from the office. Then the bomber struck.
I was reminded of the 1983 riots when the war with the Tamil Tigers began. Although it was not a religious conflict, the majority Sinhalese group were mainly Buddhist, and the Tamil community mainly Hindu. The only community that crossed the cultural divide were the Christians as both Tamil and Sinhalese worshipped together. The vernacular for all Christians in Sri Lanka generally is ‘catholic’. There is little understanding of denominational differences as they are a minority.
Dr Ivor Poobalan, a prominent Sri Lankan theologian and a childhood friend wrote this week:
“The fact is that, for over a thousand years, Sri Lankan Muslims have lived at peace with their neighbours and have never been known to initiate violence against other ethnic or religious communities. This is so unlike the ancient histories of world Islam where often its very introduction was marked by violence and holy war.
"In Sri Lanka the four world religions (Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam and Christianity) have co-existed for over a millennia. The earliest Christian communities were the Nestorian Christians of the sixth century AD but these had ended well before the Roman Catholic Portuguese arrived in the fifteen hundreds.”
Muslim converts have added another cultural dimension to Christendom in Sri Lanka. The Easter attacks affected all culture groups not to mention the tourists who were enjoying five star hospitality in the hotels that we frequently patronise when we visit Colombo. Everyone knows someone who was affected whether you live there or you are in the diaspora community. So it is heart-warming to see that so many vigils have been organised here in Britain and around the world to mark this attack which happened thousands of miles away in a little island 250 miles long and 160 miles wide, in the Indian Ocean.
It was only recently I was saying to a friend in London that I grew up in a peaceful multi-cultural society, where we respected each other’s faith. Everyone was identified with a faith group – it is rare and even unheard of, for a Sri Lankan not to belong to a faith community.
Social media was strewn with photos of the mass funerals held for these saints, rows of coffins draped in white linen… Some called it the Great Multitude as in Revelation 7:9. It struck me as I recall reading this passage in Sinhalese on the first ever Multi Cultural Worship gathering that was held in London about 9 years ago:
"After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from
every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice: 'Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.'"
The thought that my fellow Christian brothers and sisters can no longer worship on a Sunday without fear, breaks my heart. This leaves me to believe that we must never take for granted the freedom we have to worship.
I have also heard from Christian sources in Colombo that Muslim leaders are urging
church services not to be cancelled, that they will surround the churches and protect them. There is genuine willingness for inter-faith connection and solidarity, not experienced before.
It was interesting to hear the Foreign Secretary’s Easter message requesting Bishop Mountstephen to conduct an independent review of global persecution of Christians. Jeremy Hunt says:
“Countries that try to control your beliefs, generally try to control other aspects of your life too, which leads to believe that where there is persecution, there are other human rights abuses too.”
You hear all too often that persecution takes place when there is growth in the church, but I can identify with the Foreign Secretary’s sentiment in this context.
Whilst our hearts and minds are torn with insurmountable grief our central focus will be the worship of the resurrected Christ that was the focus of these atrocities. The Hymn for Ceylon is something we always sang on special occasions. May I leave you with a verse that is ringing in my heart for the country I love but left behind nearly 35 years ago:
Then bless her mighty Father,
With blessings needed most,
In every verdant village,
By every palmy coast.
On every soaring mountain,
O’er every spreading plain,
May all her sons and daughters -
Thy righteousness attain.
You can follow Ruwani on her Journey of Hope via Twitter - @sangall0
Views expressed by participants are not necessarily the views of Reconcilers Together.