JAKARTA, Indonesia — Sri Lankan Christians on Monday were struggling to come to terms with deadly terrorist attacks that targeted Catholic churches during Easter Sunday Mass, with three hotels in the capital of Colombo also hit in apparent so-called suicide bombings.

At the time of writing, the confirmed death toll stood at 290, with around 500 people injured, many seriously.

Speaking by telephone to the Register on Monday, Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith of Colombo described the attacks as “a shocking incident.”

“We never expected these kind of attacks on our communities worshipping in our Church,” he said.

Cardinal Ranjith put the number of Catholics killed in the attacks at “between 150 to 180” and expressed his condolences to the other victims, at the hotels and at the Zion Evangelical Protestant Church.

“I hope that they [the Sri Lankan authorities] will discover who was behind this and bring them to book, according to the law,” the cardinal said.

 In an earlier statement, Cardinal Ranjith called on the government to “mercilessly” punish whoever carried out the attacks, saying “only animals can behave like that.”

Pope Francis, in his Easter Sunday urbi et orbi blessing, said,  “I wish to express my affectionate closeness to the Christian community, struck while it was gathered in prayer, and to all the victims of such cruel violence.”

The government of Sri Lanka has blamed the attacks on an obscure local radical Islamist group known as National Thowheeth Jama’ath and said the group had received help from an international terrorist organization, The New York Times reported on Monday.

Catholics made up around half the dead and the churches hit included St. Anthony’s in Colombo, St. Sebastian’s in Negombo, a short distance north of the capital, as well as an evangelical church in Batticaloa on the east coast.

Sri Lanka’s near 1.5 million Catholics were targeted along with tourists and holidaymakers. Images posted on St. Sebastian’s Facebook page showed a bloodied, debris-strewn church interior, with the moderator pleading with locals “to come and help if your family members are there.” An early Monday morning post of a video address by a pastor at the Zion evangelical church was tagged, “May the Dear Lord continue to comfort us all in this difficult time.” 

Dashcam footage that showed the moment an explosion hit St. Anthony’s — the roof blown skyward as the car wound its way toward the church — went viral on social media, along with a photo of a blood-spattered statute of Jesus Christ inside St. Anthony’s, the best-known Catholic church in the country.

 

Tourists Also Targeted

While Sri Lankans made up most of the dead and wounded, at least 35 foreigners, including Americans, were killed in the carnage that also targeted three high-end hotels in Colombo, the capital, in eight attacks across the island country.

Another bomb was found near the country’s international airport and was defused. 

An island country south of India with a land area slightly bigger than West Virginia, Sri Lanka’s beaches and sweeping inland hills and valleys have made it an increasingly popular tourist destination since a long and brutal civil war ended a decade ago.

A staff member at the Cinnamon Grand, one of the three Colombo hotels targeted, said that four colleagues and six guests were killed when a guest apparently blew himself up during breakfast. 

“We are really saddened with what happened,” the staff member said, speaking by telephone.

The staff member, who asked not to be named, said the suspect in the Cinnamon Grand bombing used a Sri Lankan ID, but added “that may not mean the person was Sri Lankan.”

On Twitter, U.S. President Donald Trump posted: “The United States offers heartfelt condolences to the great people of Sri Lanka. We stand ready to help!” Vice President Mike Pence decried “an attack on Christianity & religious freedom everywhere.”

In an April 21 statement, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stated that “attacks on innocent people gathering in a place of worship or enjoying a holiday meal are affronts to the universal values and freedoms that we hold dear and demonstrate yet again the brutal nature of radical terrorists whose sole aim is to threaten peace and security.” 

While nobody has claimed responsibility for the attacks, the Sri Lankan police have arrested 24 people. Three local police were killed in one of the eight explosions.

An April 11 police warning that terrorist attacks were being planned appears to have either not been relayed to the government or to have gone unheeded.

On Sunday Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said he said he was not told about the warning, saying that the priority for now “is to apprehend the attackers.” 

The police warning mentioned National Thowheeth Jama’ath, said to be an Islamist group about which little is known.

 

Attacks Against Asian Christians

The Easter Sunday Sri Lanka attacks are the latest in a series of recent attacks targeting Christians in Asia. Jolo Cathedral in the southern Philippines was bombed during Sunday Mass on Jan. 27, an attack claimed by the so-called Islamic State (IS) group that left 20 people dead.

Attacks on Catholic and Protestant churches in Surabaya, Indonesia’s second-biggest city, in April last year killed 28 people, including the attackers, in assaults for which IS also sought to claim responsibility. Easter has seen deadly attacks on worshippers in Kenya in 2015 and in Pakistan in 2016 and 2018.

In Sri Lanka, so-called suicide bombing was a tactic used by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, better-known as the Tamil Tigers, during its protracted civil war. In over 150 such attacks, the Tamil Tigers targeted army positions, Buddhist shrines and, in 1991, prominent Indian politician Rajiv Gandhi.

Around 70% of Sri Lankans are Buddhist, with 12.6% Hindu, 9.7% Muslim and 7.6% Christian, mostly Catholics.

The Tamil Tigers campaign was ended in 2009 when the Sri Lankan army overran Tamil territory, with the estimated deaths of 40,000 people.

Since the end of that civil war, Sri Lanka has seen a rise in sectarian tensions, though those have mostly entailed Buddhists militias and mobs targeting Muslims.

Register correspondent Simon Roughneen reports from Asia for various publications.

He filed this report from Jakarta, Indonesia.