Pope Francis on Sunday, October 9, assured the people of Thailand of his prayers over the tragic killing of 36 people — 24 of them children — in a gun and knife rampage in a northeastern province.
“I assure you of my prayers for the victims of the mad act of violence that took place three days ago in Thailand,” said the Catholic Church leader after the Angelus prayer in the Vatican.
“With deep emotion, I entrust their lives to the Father, especially the little children and their families,” added Pope Francis.
Unusually for the predominantly Buddhist country where Catholics represent less than one percent of the population, the Angelus prayer was broadcasted live on national television as well as livestreamed via various social media platforms.
In Thailand on Sunday, mourning families knelt outside the Thai nursery where their children were murdered, performing a Buddhist ceremony to put the children’s souls at rest.
Saffron-robed monks led prayers for the dead on a second day of ritual mourning at a temple close to the nursery in Na Klang district, a quiet farming area torn apart by the bloodshed on Thursday, October 6.
“I am happy and appreciate that Pope Francis thinks about Thailand in his prayer today,” eight-year old Gianna Grace Techamontrikul told LiCAS News.
“But I also feel sad about the tragedy in Thailand,” she said. “I think [the victims] are now in heaven and can become angels,” added the young Catholic girl.
John Luckit, a Thai Catholic expatriate living in London, also thanked Pope Francis “for your condolences for our Thai community.”
“Out of this tragedy comes an example from Pope Francis that it doesn’t matter what religion you follow, we are all humans and are God’s children,” he said in a message to LiCAS News.
Sunettra Chongtrakul, a Catholic medical doctor in Bangkok, described the incident last week as “absolutely mindless and shocking… (and) brought tears to my eyes.”
“Unbelievable that this terrible act occurred in our country,” she said, as she expressed “heartfelt appreciation that the pope is saying a special prayer for Thailand.”
In an earlier message, Pope Francis said he was “deeply saddened” by the “horrific attack,” which has been dubbed as one of the worst mass killings in Thai history.
The Catholic Church leader offered his “heartfelt condolences and the assurance of his spiritual closeness to all those affected by this act of unspeakable violence against innocent children.”
The message was sent by Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican secretary of state, to the apostolic nunciature of Thailand on behalf of the Holy Father on Friday, October 7.
Pope Francis prayed that God may grant “divine healing and consolation” to the grieving families and the injured.
“In imploring divine healing and consolation upon the injured and the grieving families, his holiness prays that, in this hour of immense sadness, they may draw support and strength from the solidarity of their neighbors and fellow citizens,” read the message.
“Upon all the beloved Thai people, the Holy Father invokes the blessings of peace and perseverance in every good,” it added.
Catholic community in mourning
Bishop Joseph Luechai Thaiwisai of Udon Thani, the diocese where the massacre took place, also expressed sadness over the incident.
“Like everyone I was so shocked and deeply saddened that so many children died,” said the prelate to LiCAS News.
The killing occurred at a child development center in Nong Bua Lam Phu (หนองบัวลําภู), about an hour drive from the Catholic cathedral in the region, on Thursday, October 6.
“The attack was the deadliest mass slaying ever carried out in our country,” said the prelate, adding that he has offered a special Mass for the souls of the departed and their families.
The bishop said the incident reminded him of the diocese’s child center in Udon Thani where the Church takes care of about a dozen orphans.
“We have to be more careful about their security, including the junior seminarians in our care,” said the prelate.
Archbishop Anthony Weradet Chaiseri of the archdiocese of Thare and Nonseng invited Catholics to unite in prayers and support the family of those who lost their lives.
“I join in the deepest sadness of the families of those who have lost their loved ones in this tragedy,” said the archbishop of the adjacent north-eastern Thai region in a statement to LiCAS News.
“I invite Catholics in Thailand to unite in prayers and join in a special Mass for the souls of these innocent victims whom God will give eternal peace.”
Bishop Joseph Pratan Sridarunsil, chairman of the Catholic Office of Social Communication in Bangkok, said the killing of the children reminded him of the “massacre of the innocents” in the Gospel.
“It was always the adults, in this case Herod, [who killed] every male infant,” said the bishop. “It was a shocking event, (I) never thought it would happen in our country or anywhere in the world,” he added.
Khunying Patama Leeswadtrakul, member of International Olympic Committee (IOC) and chair of the Advisory Board, Catholic Association of Thailand, was “extremely saddened to learn about the tragic incident in our beloved home country.”
“No words could ever describe the grief and sorrow the bereaved families and friends are going through,” the devout Catholic community leader added.
“This act of violence is an unimaginable and unprecedented tragedy of our nation. I urge every Catholic in Thailand to do everything possible to support the survivors and relatives of these families and to help our nation in healing. We must make sure this will never happen again.”
Fr. Anthony Le Duc, superior of SVD in Thailand, had just returned to Bangkok from Nong Bua Lam Phu when news broke of the tragedy.
“As I touched down at Don Muang Airport, I received the news about this terrible tragedy,” said Father Anthony to LiCAS News.
“It’s quite difficult to imagine that such a horrendous thing could happen, and especially to so many innocent young lives. Let’s pray for all the victims and pray for greater peace in our families, community, and world.”
On Sunday, families wept as they knelt outside the nursery in a ceremony to help release their children’s souls.
Some clutched their children’s portraits, beloved toys and favorite food, which they placed outside the compound as offerings.
Around a low fence surrounding the single-storey, pink-roofed nursery where just a few days ago youngsters played happily, piles of flowers built up.
The sweet aroma of incense scented the air as the assembled crowd, including many well-wishers from the close-knit local community, bowed their heads in prayer, a low crackle of thunder echoing in the distance.
Officials solemnly carried children’s treasured possessions out of the nursery to return to families — favorite blankets and much-loved toys, each carefully placed in name-tagged bags.
“When I see the tears of the families, I just feel very sad… I can’t describe it. I feel really bad (about) what’s happened in my hometown,” said Rutt, 57, after joining her fellow villagers in supporting the bereaved.
The carnage began when the attacker forced his way in during the children’s nap time at about 12:30 pm (0530 GMT) on Thursday, opening fire with his own legally owned 9mm pistol and slashing with a knife.
Afterwards, the 34-year-old went home to murder his wife and son before taking his own life, police said, ending the rampage at about 3:00 pm.
Most of the victims died from knife injuries or gunfire, and relatives told AFP of the horrific wounds inflicted on their little ones. – with additional reporting from Agence France Presse