More than 50 students, faculty, and staff members gathered Wednesday to honor the lives of the 359 people killed by bombings that struck several churches in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday.
Standing in front of the Benjamin Franklin Statue, students and faculty stressed the importance of interfaith solidarity, recited prayers from the Bible, and offered each other support. The vigil was hosted by the Penn Catholic Newman Community, the Collegium Institute for Catholic Thought & Culture, and the Penn Spiritual & Religious Life Center.
The vigil began with remarks from Penn Assistant Chaplain Sana Saeed, who spoke about the interconnectedness and solidarity among people of different faiths.
“Make no mistake, when one group is targeted we are all affected,” Saeed said. “It becomes hard not to despair about the world seeing these events.”
On April 21, several churches and hotels in Sri Lanka were attacked by suicide bombers. Video footage showed the suspected leader of the attacks pledging support for the Islamic State, which claimed the attack on Tuesday, The New York Times reported. More than 60 arrests have been made, Sri Lankan authorities told The Times.
Saeed also read a statement condemning the tragedy from Penn President Amy Gutmann, who was unable to attend the vigil because of a conflict with her travel plans.
“In dark and dangerous times such as these, when the Penn community gathers in an iconic and beloved spot to mourn the deaths of Christians, where previously we have gathered to mourn the deaths of Muslims in worship and before that gathered to mourn the deaths of Jews at prayer, it helps to recall this truth that unites all religions: The essence of faith is a refusal to be afraid," Gutmann wrote.
This marks the third Penn vigil honoring the lives of people killed because of religious motives since the start of the academic year. In October 2018, members of the community gathered on College Green after the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting. Months later in March, students and faculty held a vigil and stood in solidarity for the victims of the New Zealand mosque attacks.
Other speakers included Father Carlos Keen from the Newman Center, Chaplain of the Muslim Life Program Patricia Anton, South Asia Studies professor Varun Khanna, and Co-chairs of Programs for Religious, Interfaith, and Spiritual Matters and College sophomores Cassandra Jobman and Nimai Agarwal.
“I’m just thinking back to Sunday as I was celebrating Easter, a time of victory and joy with community and family, I just can’t even imagine what was happening in Sri Lanka at the time,” Jobman said. “It's heart-wrenching and words really fail me, but I just take comfort in the fact that Jesus wept and he weeps and so do we as we stand in solidarity."
Father Keen read aloud from a testimony written by 2013 College graduate Romero Santiago, who, as a Sri Lankan American, had a personal connection to the tragedy.
“Saint Anthony’s church, where one of the attacks was, is a very special place for my parents, who would attend for worship frequently when growing up,” Santiago wrote. “And as a result, seeing this brutality against my fellow worshippers is absolutely heartbreaking to see and unforgivable, especially on the holiest day of Easter Sunday that is celebrated so immensely in Sri Lanka.”
College sophomore Daisy Angeles said as someone of Catholic faith, the bombings hit especially close to her.
“I identify as Catholic, and so this event that just happened over the weekend really hit close for me just as a member of the same religious community," Angeles said. “Even for those who don’t share the faith or who have no idea about Sri Lanka’s culture, solidarity is so important in these moments when we don’t know what to do.”
Former Newman president and Nursing senior Marya Lieb also stressed the importance of interfaith support in the aftermath of the bombings.
“There are so many communities affected by it, and I think it’s just a really unique way to support each other and say that this is a horrible thing, that we’re walking with each other through it and that we can unite in prayer and unite in peace,” Lieb said.
Nursing junior Theresa Dierkes, along with College freshmen Nikole Bonillas and Nick Plante went up to the statue as the event came to a close and performed a song to the quiet audience.
"Even when my strength is lost, I praise you," Bonilla's voice rang out.