Poster memorials and crosses for Christians who died in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Easter Sunday, 2019 (Photo: Vishal Arora)

Sri Lankan Arasaratnam Verl is deep in mourning.

His son Jackson (13) and sister Verlini (36) were killed instantly when a bomb exploded in the evangelical Zion Church in the eastern city of Batticaloa on Easter Sunday morning, 21 April.

Verlini’s husband Ranjith (39), an engineer and Blackbelt in karate, died a week later of kidney failure: he also had 3rd degree burns.

On her sixth birthday, Ranjith and Verlini’s orphan Eliza (6) was due to be transferred from Batticaloa ICU to a hospital in Colombo the next day: her womb had to be removed due to shrapnel injury. She was also blinded in one eye, the doctors were trying to save the other.
Also orphaned was her 8 year old brother Rufus Isaac.

“My son Jackson and my sister died on the spot,” said Verl. “Jackson was captain of his basketball team. He used to compete in many places like Jaffna, Colombo. He’s the best in everything. He’s my only son.

“Jesus died on Good Friday, and on Easter Sunday, He was raised back to life. My son, sister, and brother-in-law died, but they were raised to new life with Jesus on that day.”

As a Sunday School teacher, Verlini had read the Bible cover to cover 27 times, Verl shared. “On Easter Sunday, she’d ensured the children [understood why Christ had died on the Cross], they’d confessed their sins and accepted Jesus. After that, she and the children went down for breakfast [in the church portico] and the explosion went off.”

“Losing someone hurts. They are special people. They were not killed. They were sown like seeds. And the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church”.

Despite the heartache, Verl shows no sign of losing his trust in God. “God is good. God is great. My foundation is Jesus Christ. I’m zero. Jesus is everything. My son was mine for 13 years, but he is His forever.”

Poster of Verlini and Jackson made after they died together in the church bombing (Photo Open Doors International)

Verl is but one of the hundreds whose lives have changed forever. Several families, like Verl’s, lost more than one member – and all in one nuclear family were killed. Assistant Pastor Kumaran, who lost his 14-year-old son Malkiya, pondered tearfully “I’m not asking God why, I’m only asking how I can pass through this, and for how long.”

At least 29 worshippers, including 14 children, were killed and 100 others were wounded in the suicide attack on the church, minutes after suicide bombers also rocked two Catholic churches: St. Anthony’s Church in the Kochchikade district in the capital of Colombo, killing over 50 congregants; and St. Sebastian’s Church in Negombo near Colombo, killing more than 100.

A field worker with Open Doors, which supports persecuted Christians, wrote of her visit:

“Places of worship are now heavily guarded: Catholic, Protestant, mosques – all entrances are punctuated by army men, and the entrance to the community center where Zion Church is temporarily holding its services was no exception on Sunday (5 May).

“Snipers decked the roof of the center – two men with rifles at the front, three more at the back. A military truck was parked outside. The original church, nearby, was still cordoned off.

“Prior to entry, one church member told us to leave everything but our Bibles and IDs. No photos and videos, he said. Especially, no bags.

“When we stepped inside the church, it was a disarming sight – hundreds of worshippers filled the hall, their hands thrown to the sky, shouting ‘Amen! Hallelujah!’

“Rev. Roshan Mahesan stood in front and honored the dead. “They are martyrs. Now they are home with Jesus.” He also read the names of the injured, stopping after every couple of names to give people time to pray. Five are in hospital in Colombo, some in another in Kandy while four remain in Batticaloa Intensive Care Unit.

“The shrapnel had taken life and limb, but the believers knelt, stood, and sang. They banged heaven’s gates, asking God for healing and to help them to love and forgive. It was a kind of wailing I have never heard before”.

As Sri Lanka continued on high alert due to threats of fresh attacks and some churches remained closed for a second week since the Easter bombings killed at least 257 people, including 45 children, and injured around 500 others, the island nation’s Evangelical Alliance was gearing up to help affected Christians cope with the community’s worst tragedy.

The National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka (NCEASL), which represents over 200 churches and Christian organisations, is preparing to meet short-term needs of survivors, including treatment of the injured, counselling those suffering from post-traumatic stress and providing financial needs to those who have lost earning members of their families, as Yamini Ravindran, NCEASL’s Legal and Advocacy Head, told Vishal Arora in this 6′ 30” video report.

Of the 257 dead, about 180 were at the church sites. The others were killed in blasts at the Shangri-La, Kingsbury and Cinnamon Grand hotels in Colombo. The three hotels had advertised their Easter brunches. Hours later on Easter Sunday, two more explosions followed during police raids.

“It was something like what we experienced during the (civil) war or tsunami (2004) … all kinds of mixed emotions,” recalled NCEASL’s Executive Director Godfrey Yogarajah.

The suicide bombers were members of a local Islamist extremist group, called National Thowheed Jamath (NTJ), which allegedly has links with the Islamic State terror group, according to the Sri Lankan government. ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi appeared in a video claiming that the Easter attacks were carried out to avenge the outfit’s defeat in the Syrian city of Baghouz, its only remaining territory in the region.

“You can’t say the threat is over,” Health Minister and government spokesman Rajitha Senaratne told media on Saturday (May 4), and the Sri Lankan military issued a statement the same day, saying, “Extensive cordon and search operations of the army and sister services across the country with assistance of the police are continuing in search of terrorists, hideouts, explosives, weapons and other war-like items… with the deployment of more and more troops as required.”

Christians had been experiencing persecution in this Buddhist-majority country, but this is the first time they were targeted by Islamist terror groups. The Bodu Bala Sena (Buddhist Power Force, or BBS) had been attacking Christians and Muslims over the last decade.

In 2018, NCEASL recorded at least 86 incidents of discrimination, threats and violence against Christians, and it had reported 26 such incidents this year until March 25.

More than 70 percent of Sri Lanka’s population follows Theravada Buddhism. Muslims make up about 10 percent of the population, and Christians less than eight percent, the majority of whom are Roman Catholic.