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Sri Lankan Catholic Churches Cancel Worship Services, Fearful Of More Attacks

The archbishop of Colombo and other religious leaders are cautioning Sri Lankans against attending worship services for the foreseeable future.

Many of Sri Lanka’s Catholic churches are canceling public worship services for the foreseeable future over continuing concerns over security.

The island nation’s Catholic community is still reeling from suicide bombings on Easter Sunday that killed over 250 people.

Three churches and three luxury hotels were targeted in the suicide bombing, including St. Anthony’s Shrine in Colombo and St. Sebastian’s Church in Negombo ― two Roman Catholic churches that were packed with worshippers on one of the holiest days on the Christian calendar.

A senior Catholic priest told the AFP on Thursday that Sri Lanka’s Catholic churches are now canceling worship services “on the advice of security forces,” but that private funerals will still be taking place.

Although the main day for Catholic worship services is Sunday, parishes often hold weekday Masses, services for special feast days, or services for life events. 

Rev. Niroshan Perera, a priest in Negombo, said that Catholic churches in his city had all canceled masses, following the government’s advice, the Washington Post reports. 

Negombo, a fishing town that lies north of Colombo, has earned the nickname “Little Rome” because of its many Catholic churches and roadside shrines. While only about 6% of all Sri Lankans are Catholic, about 65% of Negombo is Catholic, according to the Associated Press.  

A Sri Lankan soldier stands guard under the rain at St. Anthony's Shrine in Colombo on April 25, 2019, following a series of
A Sri Lankan soldier stands guard under the rain at St. Anthony's Shrine in Colombo on April 25, 2019, following a series of bomb blasts targeting churches and luxury hotels on the Easter Sunday in Sri Lanka.

Earlier this week, Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, archbishop of Colombo, had urged Sri Lankan Catholic priests to not hold church services or other public religious events until the archdiocese announces that it is safe to do so. 

“There could be more attacks on public gatherings,” the cardinal said on Tuesday, according to Reuters. 

At least one Catholic school in the country was also temporarily shuttered.

Muslim leaders in Sri Lanka have urged Muslims to avoid going to mosques for traditional Friday prayer services this week, the Washington Post reported. 

The U.S. Embassy in Sri Lanka has issued a warning cautioning that places of worship could once again become targets for attacks over the weekend, the Associated Press reported. The U.K. has advised citizens against traveling to Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka’s Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe told the AP Thursday that suspects connected to the Easter Sunday bombings are still at large and “may go out for a suicide attack.”

At least 58 people have been arrested in connection with the attacks, the Washington Post reported, and police are searching for more suspects.

Police officers work at the scene at St. Sebastian Catholic Church, after bomb blasts ripped through churches and luxury hote
Police officers work at the scene at St. Sebastian Catholic Church, after bomb blasts ripped through churches and luxury hotels on Easter, in Negombo, Sri Lanka April 22, 2019. 

Sri Lankan authorities have acknowledged that some intelligence agencies were aware that a little known extremist group, National Thowfeek Jamaath, was planning an attack on churches. However, Sri Lanka’s prime minister and president have insisted that this information was not shared with them until after the massacre. Sri Lanka’s president has pledged to fire the country’s top security leaders over the alleged oversight.

The so-called Islamic State has also asserted that it was responsible for the attack, although authorities are still investigating those claims.

Ranjith, the archbishop of Colombo, called Islam a religion “full of thoughts of peace” and said he finds it incomprehensible that an organization that calls itself “Islamic” would murder innocent people. Christians and Muslims are both minorities in Sri Lanka, which is a Buddhist-majority country.

“We have lived together with these Muslim brothers and sisters in peace and harmony,” Ranjith told CBC.

Blood stains are seen on a statue of Jesus Christ at St. Sebastian Catholic Church, after bomb blasts ripped through churches
Blood stains are seen on a statue of Jesus Christ at St. Sebastian Catholic Church, after bomb blasts ripped through churches and luxury hotels on Easter, in Negombo, Sri Lanka April 22, 2019. 

The cardinal has criticized the Sri Lankan government’s failure to act on the intelligence reports, telling the CBC that the government’s behavior was “absolutely unacceptable.” Ranjith said he would have called off Easter Sunday and other Holy Week services if he had been warned in advance. 

“I would have canceled because, for me, the most important thing is human life,” Ranjith said. “Human beings, they are our treasure.”

The cardinal said that he now has “no words with which I can console my people.”

“I don’t know what to say to them. I try. I tried to go to their funerals and I tried to embrace them and tell them I am with them, but I have no words to say,” Ranjith said. “I am suffering with them.”

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