/ 30 April 2019

Sri Lanka Catholics to resume mass two weeks after attacks

A soldier keeps guard as nuns walk out of St. Sebastian Church in Negombo
A soldier keeps guard as nuns walk out of St. Sebastian Church in Negombo, Sri Lanka. (Reuters/Danish Siddiqui)

Catholic masses in Sri Lanka will resume Sunday under tight security, two weeks after Easter bombings killed 253 people at three churches and three luxury hotels, the country’s top cardinal said.

All public services by Sri Lanka’s Christian minority were cancelled after the April 21 suicide attacks claimed by the Islamic State group left the island nation reeling and shattered its image as a safe holiday destination.

Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith said on Tuesday the church was closely monitoring investigations into the atrocities, in which 42 foreigners died, and wanted to be sure of the security situation.

“On the 5th of May we are going to begin (Sunday) masses,” he said.

“But we will start with a smaller number of masses and see if we can slowly increase it depending on how the situation develops.”

Last Sunday the cardinal, who is also Archbishop of Colombo, conducted a private memorial mass that was broadcast live on television after cancelling all public services.

The government is maintaining a state of emergency which gives sweeping powers to security forces to arrest and detain suspects, although on Tuesday it lifted a ban on social media platforms.

Access to Facebook, WhatsApp, Viber and YouTube was blocked by the government soon after the attacks in a bid to prevent the spread of what it called inflammatory rumours and fake news that could have provoked more violence.

Security on the ground remained tight meanwhile, with police arresting more than 150 suspects since April 21, with warnings that extremists may launch new attacks.

President Maithripala Sirisena said Friday that the authorities believed there were 140 Islamic State-inspired jihadists in Sri Lanka and the country had security forces to track them down.

On Sunday some churches will have metal detectors and all those attending will be frisked, authorities say. People have been advised not to bring any bags to church and soldiers or armed police will be on guard outside.

Armed guards and an armoured personnel carrier have also been placed outside Cardinal Ranjith’s Colombo residence.

But he said he has returned a bullet-proof limousine provided by the government and instead travelled in an ordinary car.

“I am not afraid. I don’t need bullet-proof vehicles to go about. The Lord is my protector,” he said. “But, I want security for my people, and for the country.”

150 suspects 

Police say they have accounted for all six suspects who were declared as most-wanted on a list issued following the attacks.

Two suspects have been killed and the other four are in custody, police said.

The Easter attacks were blamed on the local National Thowheeth Jama’ath (NTJ) whose leader was among the suicide bombers.

Sri Lanka’s schools remain closed and all political parties have cancelled their May Day rallies planned for Wednesday because of security concerns.

Cardinal Ranjith said Sunday that he feared investigations could end up being a “flop” and Catholics were not confident that perpetrators will be brought to justice given the country’s history of impunity.

He has also repeatedly criticised the authorities for failing to share intelligence reports that had warned of an impending jihadist attack against Christians ahead of the assaults, saying he felt “betrayed” by the government.

“If they warned me, I would have cancelled the Easter services,” he said Sunday at his privately televised mass.

He said he had concerns about the progress of security operations against jihadists behind the worst single-day attack against civilians in the country’s history.

“There should be tougher laws to deal with those responsible for the attacks,” the cardinal said on Tuesday.

“We don’t know the progress of the investigations. We are told that they have good information from suspects in custody, but I am not sure if they have the capacity to follow up.”