By Mark Michael

Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby completed a 10-day visit to Sri Lanka and India earlier this week, according to reports from Anglican Communion News Service. He began his time in South Asia with a time of prayer at one of the three Sri Lankan churches bombed by extremists last Easter Sunday. He also prostrated himself in humble atonement at an infamous massacre site in Northwestern India, offering an unqualified apology for one of the greatest atrocities of British colonial rule.

The archbishop visited St. Sebastian’s, a seaside Roman Catholic church, and knelt on the pockmarked site where the suicide bomber had detonated his explosives. Pointing to a nearby statue of the risen Christ stained with the blood of the bombing victims, he said,

“When I see this statue, this image of Christ covered with the blood of the martyrs; I know by that the courage, your faith and your love. I see the true Christ. Not the Christ who is distant and clean but the Christ who is covered his own and our blood.”

ACNS’s Rachel Farmer reported that Welby laid a wreath of white roses at a plaque bearing the names of those killed in the bombing.  He also praised the gracious restraint demonstrated by the nation’s Christian leaders in their response to the terrorist attack:

“To come before you, I am almost without words; for I can only say thank you to the Christians of Sri Lanka. We know that the Christ who on the cross said, ‘Father forgive,’ knows our anger, your pain, your sorrow. And we know that through his resurrection even that anger and sorrow and pain will be transformed in purity to hope.”

After meeting with church leaders in various places throughout North and South India, Welby made a highly-publicized visit to Jallianwala Bagh, where hundreds of unarmed protesters were killed by British troops in an infamous 1919 attack. The massacre was a crucial catalyst for unifying India in opposition to British rule, and the lack of a direct apology by British officials has been a longstanding grievance for many Indians. The archbishop had indicated that he would address the tragedy in its centenary year during the announcement of plans for his visit last month.

Welby reflected on the significance of the site in an interview with The Times of India, the nation’s main English-language daily, on the eve of the visit, saying:

“I wish to express shame and sorrow, for it is recognition of the horrible reality of what we, the British, did there, and there were doubtless believing Christians involved, in the British troops. Imperialism with its absolute power damages the society over which it rules; in fact, it damages everyone. Jallianwala Bagh is a classic example of the huge shame and damage done to our reputation and our history.”

The archbishop visited the spot on Wednesday, accompanied by a large group of Indian church leaders and pilgrims. He lay prostrate on the ground for a time before the monument commemorating the event, and then addressed the crowd, saying:

“Coming here arouses a sense of profound shame at what happened in this place. It is one of a number of deep stains on British history. The pain and grief that has transcended the generations since must never be dismissed or denied. … We have a great responsibility to not just lament this horrific massacre, but most importantly to learn from it in a way that changes our actions. … The past must be learned from so nothing like this ever happens again.”

Kim Wagner, a historian of the British Raj, praised the archbishop’s actions in an op-ed in The Guardian on September 13. He noted that Welby’s prostration was a powerful echo of a dehumanizing order imposed on Indian natives by British officials a century ago. Wagner wrote:

“The archbishop of Canterbury is not a politician; he made it very clear that he was acting in a religious capacity. And while some will find his apology insufficient, it is nevertheless significant that it was unqualified. The image of the archbishop flat on the ground is so much more poignant for echoing the infamous “crawling order” in 1919, which forced Indian men to crawl at bayonet point. One only has to recall Boris Johnson reciting Kipling in Myanmar to recognise that we will never get this kind of meaningful apology from a British politician.

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