‘I just lost all my happiness at Easter,’ Sri Lankan expat says of bombings in homeland

24 April 2019

Appears in: Archdiocesan News

Sharma Iyer and his family had just attended the Easter Vigil Mass when his son-in-law’s cellphone rang with an urgent message: There had been a series of deadly bombings in his homeland, Sri Lanka.

The explosions were detonated during Easter Mass at churches in Colombo, and in Negombo, 320 kilometres north of the capital. The popular Shangri-La, Kingsbury and Cinnamon Grand hotels in Colombo were also targeted.

By April 24, more than 350 people — including 45 children — were confirmed dead and 500 others injured.

St. Anthony’s Shrine was the Catholic Church targeted in Colombo, and St. Sebastian’s is the Catholic parish in Negombo. On April 23, the Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attacks.

“I was shocked … It was so sad,” said Iyer, a 72-year-old Sri Lankan expatriate and grandfather of three.

Iyer heard the news just as Mass ended at St. Thomas More Parish in south Edmonton, where he was helping with the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults program.

“I just lost all my happiness at Easter and I’m still trying to recover,” Iyer said, his voice cracking with emotion. “I was unable to pray, really, until recently.”

Fatima and Sharma Iyer say their family is safe back in Sri Lanka.

Upon learning of the attacks, Iyer immediately called his younger brother Shan, reaching his family about 12:30 p.m. local time in Colombo. “I talked to my niece and she said that everyone was OK.”

Shan, a Hindu like most of the Iyer family, lives just a few kilometres away from St. Sebastian’s church.

In the aftermath of the attacks, the Sri Lankan Catholic diaspora in Edmonton is coming together to mourn the victims and to show solidarity with the survivors and the people of their homeland.

An estimated 20 to 25 families are members of Tamil Catholic Family Edmonton Area. The group, whose members include people from Sri Lanka, India and Singapore, reaches out to all Tamil-speaking Catholics in the Edmonton area and celebrates Mass together once a month in Tamil.

Tamil Catholic Family Edmonton Area, seen in this file photo, includes many Sri Lankan expatriates.

Organizer Jesu Bala said the group planned to host a Mass in Tamil on April 25 at 6 p.m. at St. Theresa’s Parish in south Edmonton. It was supposed to celebrate Easter, but now would also be a Mass in solidarity with the Sri Lankan people and to mourn the victims of the bombings.

“It’s hard to believe. At times like these, we’re all Tamils,” added Rev. Susai Jesu, the pastor of Sacred Heart Church of the First Peoples and presider at the Tamil community Mass. The event was to include a blessing of family photos for Sri Lankan Catholics and a potluck dinner afterwards.

Earlier this week, nearly 300 people attended a candlelight vigil at the Alberta legislature for the Sri Lankan victims. A vigil was also held among the Buddhist community. About 5,000 people in Edmonton trace their roots to Sri Lanka.

Members of Edmonton’s Sri Lankan community, and their supporters, attend an April 22 vigil.

Father Jesu is from southern India, but he is an ethnic Tamil and lived in Sri Lanka for a year as an Oblate noviciate.

“It’s so sad to see the photos that are coming out of Sri Lanka. Some of the victims, children, has just celebrated their Confirmation,” Jesu said.

“We’re praying for strength for the people of Sri Lanka, so that they don’t act out of emotions but instead that they ask for God’s presence in their heart and to ask how they can move forward as a community.”

Rev. Susai Jesu

Suzanne Brohier of Edmonton also experienced a close call.

Her 77-year-old mom, Gwen Lafaber who lives alone in Hendala, a half-hour’s drive from Colombo, normally attends Easter Mass at St. Sebastian’s Catholic Church in the capital, but this time she didn’t.

“It just happened that she decided that she wanted to go to the church that she belongs to in the convent in Hendala,” Brohier said. “And thank God for that. When we go on holidays, St. Anthony’s is the church that we never stop visiting. Even non-Christians go to that church.”

Brohier also noted that this Easter, her two sisters and their families decided not to have their traditional annual brunch at the Cinnamon Grand, one of the hotels that was destroyed in the bombings.

“Praise God, I think it was the Holy Spirit that made them stay home this Easter,” Brohier said.

Brohier and her husband Darrel, who is also from Sri Lanka, normally attend the Easter vigil on April 21. Instead, they spent the evening on the phone making sure their family was safe.

“I was on the phone with all my sisters. The first thing I told them was ‘Check with Mom,’ because she lives by herself. Immediately they contacted her and she was at home,” Brohier said.

While her family was safe, others attending Mass at St. Anthony’s church were not as fortunate.

Suzanne Brohier

“We know of a family – a father, a mother and three children – they were worshipping at the Mass and they are all gone,” said Brohier, an administrative assistant with the Catholic Archdiocese of Edmonton, whose family emigrated to Canada about eight years ago.

Expatriates interviewed by Grandin Media say Sri Lanka is a peaceful country, at least for the last decade since the end of the civil war, although there had been reports of Christians persecuted in the south.

And the predominantly Buddhist island country is home to people of all faiths. Iyer noted that Christians, Hindus and other religions live in peace in Sri Lanka, with many of them coming together each year in celebration on the feast day of Our Lady of Madu, the patron saint of Sri Lanka, on July 2.

Sharma Iyer, who was born in Matale in central Sri Lanka, said the Easter bombings are the worst violence since the country’s civil war ended a decade ago and the first by the Islamic State, but he considers them isolated incidents.

“I don’t think it will escalate, but I hope that the Muslim community won’t be subjected to harassment because of this,” said Iyer, who emigrated to Edmonton in 2002 with his wife and son to join his daughter who was already living here.

Iyer is member of the Tamil Catholic Family Edmonton Area as well as a local Sri Lanka prayer group.

Muslim groups ranging from the Muslim Association of Canada to Edmonton’s Al-Rashid Mosque – the first mosque built in Canada and the largest in city with more than 60,000 members – have issued statements condemning the attacks in Sri Lanka..

-With files from Catholic News Service

Official Statements on the Sri Lanka Attacks

The Canadian Council of Imams and the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) have issued joint statements condemning the deadly terrorist attacks that struck churches and hotels in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday, April 21.