Colombo, SRI LANKA -- The Archbishop of Colombo, Albert Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, condemned the deadly attacks on churches and luxury hotels on Easter Sunday (April 21) in a series of bomb blasts that claimed at least 290 lives and leaving more than 500 people injured.
The police said that it was the worst violence to hit the island since its devastating civil war ended a decade ago in 2009.
Cardinal Ranjit urged Sri Lankans not to "take the law into their own hands" after a series of explosions targeting churches and people hotels.
"I condemn, to the utmost of my capacity, this act which has caused so much death and suffering," he told Fides.
He also urged people to donate blood to help the injured and pray for their speedy recovery. It is so sad, so tragic and shocking. The dastardly attack was mainly on Christians in Churches and others in hotels.
“We are saddened for all those who loved lives in this violence. Our prayers are for each of them,” the Cardinal said.
One of the explosions was at St. Anthony's Shrine, a Catholic church in Kochcikade, Colombo, a tourist landmark.
A second blast hit St Sebastian's Church during Easter Mass, killing dozens. Pictures from the site showed bodies on the ground, blood on the church pews and a destroyed roof.
Soon after the first two church blasts, police confirmed that the Zion church in the east coast town of Batticaloa had been hit, along with three high-end hotels in the capital - the Cinnamon Grand, the Shangri-La and the Kingsbury.
Later in the afternoon, two people died in a strike at a hotel in the south of Colombo, and a suicide bomber killed three police officers as they raided a house in a northern suburb of the city.
There were fears the attacks could spark a renewal of communal violence, with police reporting late on Sunday there had been a petrol bomb attack on a mosque in the northwest and arson attacks on two shops owned by Muslims in the west.
In the meantime, the President of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conference (FABC) Charles Cardinal Maung Bo, Archbishop of Yangon, Myanmar, sent a letter of solidarity and condolence to Cardinal Ranjith on 21 April in the wake of the serial bomb blasts that rocked the island nation.
In a quick response to the unfolding tragedy which occurred during the Easter Sunday morning services Salesian Cardinal Bo wrote, “Allow me to express my sincere anguish at this tragedy that has taken the toll on scores of innocent human lives on the very day when we celebrate world over the victory of life and goodness over death and evil.”
The Myanmar Cardinal offered his fraternal support saying, “As I place my humble prayers for all the victims of this senseless violence, I also pray for the care givers and relief agents.”
“We need to plead the mercy seat of the Risen Lord Jesus, the Prince of Hope and Peace, to strengthen all people of good will to help stabilize the situation of fear and suspicion that has arisen following the blasts,” the cardinal prayed.
The head of 19 Episcopal Conferences of Asia concluded his letter stating, “I also extend the prayers of Brother Bishops and Faithful of all member countries of the FABC.”
In the years since the end of Sri Lanka’s civil war in 2009, there has been some sporadic violence, with members of the majority Buddhist Sinhala community attacking mosques and Muslim-owned properties. That led to a state of emergency being declared in March 2018.
Theravada Buddhism is Sri Lanka’s biggest religion, making up about 70.2% of the population, according to the most recent census. It is the religion of Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese majority.
Hindus and Muslims make up 12.6% and 9.7% of the population respectively.
Sri Lanka is also home to about 1.5 million Christians, according to the 2012 census, the vast majority of them Roman Catholic.
Meanwhile, the Sri Lankan government imposed a nationwide curfew after the blasts that also left 500 wounded. The curfew was lifted on Monday but schools and colleges remained closed on Monday and Tuesday.
Soldiers armed with automatic weapons stood guard outside major hotels and the World Trade Center in the business district.
The news came hours after it was revealed that an improvised bomb discovered at the main airport in Colombo had been defused.
Sri Lankans accounted for the bulk of those killed or injured, although government officials said 32 foreigners were also killed. These included British, US, Turkish, Indian, Chinese, Danish, Dutch, Portuguese and Japanese nations.
"Additionally, while nine foreign nationals are reported missing, there are 25 unidentified bodies believed to be of foreigners," the Sri Lankan foreign ministry said.
The attacks were mostly targeted at high-end hotels in the capital and churches where worshippers were attending Easter services.
Social media access, including Facebook and WhatsApp, has also been curbed to restrict "wrong information" spreading in the country.
Sri Lanka's small Christian minority - just 6 per cent of the 21 million-strong population - has been targeted by violence in the past, but never to such brutal effect, Maline Fernando, a Catholic lay woman, told Fides.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility but the police on Monday said 24 people have been arrested.
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said "so far the names that have come up are local", but that investigators would look into whether the attackers had any "overseas links".
The police were investigating whether suicide bombers were involved in all of the blasts.
Sri Lanka's State Minister for Defence Ruwan Wijewardene said the country's Criminal Investigations Department is working with the police and the military to investigate the attacks.
"We believe that all the culprits who have been involved in this unfortunate terrorist incident will be taken into custody as soon as possible," he said, adding that suspects have been identified.
According to Sri Lanka's police chief Pujuth Jayasundara issued an intelligence alert to top officers 10 days ago, warning that suicide bombers planned to hit "prominent churches".
"A foreign intelligence agency has reported that the NTJ (National Thowheeth Jama'ath) is planning to carry out suicide attacks targeting prominent churches as well as the Indian high commission in Colombo," the alert said.
The NTJ is a radical Muslim group in Sri Lanka that was linked last year to the vandalisation of Buddhist statues.
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe acknowledged that "information was there" about possible attacks and that an investigation would look into "why adequate precautions were not taken".
Ethnic and religious violence has plagued Sri Lanka for decades, with a 37-year conflict with Tamil rebels followed by an upswing in recent years in clashes between the Buddhist majority and Muslims.
While there have been attacks on Christians, their community had been left relatively unscathed until now.
Many world leaders like US President Donald Trump and Pope Francis among others have condemned the attacks.
“We condemn these violent acts. Violence of any kind (including hate speeches and discriminatory attitudes) are not acceptable and non-negotiable! They have no place in our world today. The perpetrators much be brought to book. We call upon all to maintain peace and harmony and to ensure that such acts are not repeated anywhere and on anyone. On this Easter week we pray for healing and that justice, truth, love and peace may reign in the hearts and minds of all men and women,” Jeevani Pereiera, a Christian youth, told Fides.
“Violence of this nature was never seen before. All are in a state of fear and shock,” she added. (SD) (Agenzia Fides 22/4/2019)