Fear Haunts Sri Lanka’s Catholics After Deadly Easter Blasts

Reports that the Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the multiple massacres increase the concerns.

Relatives carry the coffin of a bomb blast victim during a burial ceremony at a cemetery in Colombo on April 24, three days after a series of suicide attacks targeting churches and luxury hotels in Sri Lanka that killed more than 350 people, despite prior intelligence warnings.
Relatives carry the coffin of a bomb blast victim during a burial ceremony at a cemetery in Colombo on April 24, three days after a series of suicide attacks targeting churches and luxury hotels in Sri Lanka that killed more than 350 people, despite prior intelligence warnings. (photo: Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images)

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — The Indian Ocean island of Sri Lanka has been left stunned by the catastrophic blasts that rocked three churches, including two Catholic churches in the Colombo area, along with three luxury hotels .

The attacks left 359 dead and more than 500 injured.

“We are all under guard. Though nothing happened here, fear is very much all around,” Bishop Julian Fernando, the president of the Sri Lankan Catholic Bishops’ Conference, told the Register April 24 from his diocese office in Badulla, 135 miles east of Sri Lanka’s capital city of Colombo.

“People feel that there could be more bombers and anything could happen here too,” added Bishop Fernando.

“I just returned from my third funeral for the blast victims. The situation is very sad and shocking,” said Bishop Fernando, one of the leaders of the 1.2 million-strong Catholic Church in the island-nation of more than 21 million.

Most of the Easter Sunday casualties were at St. Sebastian’s Church in Negombo, an hour’s drive from the city center, and St. Anthony’s Church in Colombo. Nearly 200 Catholics who were at Easter morning Mass perished in the blasts, which were carried out by suicide bombers belonging to a previously obscure local Islamist group called National Thowheeth Jama’ath. An evangelical church in Batticaloa, on Sri Lanka’s east coast, was also bombed, killing dozens of Christians attending Easter services there.

Mourning with their nation, the Sri Lankan bishops’ conference said in an April 22 statement, “The fact that this attack on churches took place when the people were at worship on the most sacred feast of Easter is indeed a cruel act which is extremely deplorable.”

While churches bore the brunt of the blasts, simultaneous suicide bombings in dining areas around breakfast time in three luxury hotels in Colombo claimed the lives of 39 international visitors, including 11 Indians and 4 U.S. nationals, along with three young children of Anders Holch Povlsen, Denmark’s richest man.


Security Lapses

The Sri Lankan government has admitted that international intelligence warnings of likely attacks on Christian targets had not been acted upon by concerned officials.

Ruwan Wijewardene, the state minister of defense, told the Sri Lankan Parliament that “weakness” within Sri Lanka’s security apparatus led to the failure to prevent the deadly serial blasts, The Associated Press reported April 25.

“By now it has been established that the intelligence units were aware of this attack and a group of responsible people were informed about the impending attack,” Wijewardene said. “However, this information has been circulated among only a few officials.”

Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith of Colombo criticized the security failures by the country’s authorities.

“The security forces have not cleared the situation yet. … There could be more attacks on public gatherings,” Cardinal Ranjith told reporters. The cardinal, who traveled to the worst-hit St. Sebastian’s Church to lead the funeral for two dozen of the victims on April 23, urged Sri Lanka’s priests not to hold public events or religious celebrations until they receive approval from the archdiocese.

One of Sri Lanka’s major daily newspapers, The Island, reported on April 24 that a list of 160 National Thowheeth Jama’ath terrorists had been assembled by intelligence officials earlier this year. However, none of the Islamist terrorists were detained before the attacks, according to the report, because higher-level government officials had not issued any arrest orders.

“The fear is widespread, as security forces themselves are saying that some terrorists could be at large,” Jehan Perera, a prominent lay Catholic leader and media director of the National Peace Council in which all the major religious groups, including the Catholic Church, are members, told the Register.

“Everyone is apprehensive, as they are afraid of bombs on the road,” Perera said, describing how the pervasive fear has affected Colombo’s residents. “The traffic is much less, and many are remaining indoors. The schools have been shut for a week.”


Islamic State Involvement

Speaking at an emergency parliamentary session, Defense Minister Ruwan Wijewardene said that the “preliminary investigation revealed that what happened in Sri Lanka was in retaliation for the attack against Muslims in Christchurch” in March.

Amaq, the propaganda agency for the Islamic State (IS), claimed responsibility for the attacks. “A security source told Amaq agency the perpetrators of the attack targeting the citizens of [U.S.-led] coalition countries and Christians in Sri Lanka were soldiers of the Islamic State,” Amaq claimed.

Asked about IS asserting responsibility for the devastating serial blasts carried out by the local Islamist militants on Easter morning, Perara said, “Initially nobody had a clue as to who was behind it. Now the picture is clear. We are victims of the global situation.”

With police advising caution amid reports of trained bombers remaining at large, Perera noted that “there is greater fear among clergy that they could be targeted. That is why many of them even do not want to be quoted or named.”

“Tension is very high, as terrorists are on the run,” a senior journalist working with the Catholic magazine Messenger told the Register.

The Catholic journalist, who requested anonymity, said that the blasts have not resulted in Christian-Muslim clashes, although there might be some tensions “here and there” between members of the two religious communities. Around 70% of Sri Lankans are Buddhist, while 12.6% are Hindu, 9.7% are Muslim, and 7.6% are Christian, mostly Catholics.

“Everyone knows that terrorists have done this and not the [Muslim] community,” the journalist said, adding that the “challenge is to battle against extremists and defeat them.”

Register correspondent Anto Akkara is based in Bangalore, India.