Sri Lanka’s churches remained shut Sunday, forcing Christians to say prayers of grief in private over the Easter suicide attacks that the country’s Roman Catholic leader called “an insult to humanity”.
Fearing a repeat of the Easter Sunday bombings of churches and hotels in which 253 people died, the archbishop of Colombo, Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, held a private Mass after cancelling all public services.
Amid heavy security imposed across the country, a vigil was also held outside St Anthony’s Shrine in Colombo at 8:45 am, the moment the bomber struck the church, killing dozens of worshippers.
“Today during this Mass we are paying attention to last Sunday’s tragedy and we try to understand it,” the cardinal said at his official residence, where President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe were among the small congregation.
“We pray that in this country there will be peace and co-existence and understanding each other without division,” he said.
“What happened last Sunday is a great tragedy, an insult to humanity,” he added.
Stuck in time
At exactly 8:45 am, the singing of hymns by scores of people outside St Anthony’s stopped and bells tolled. The hands on the tower clock remain fixed at the time of the blast.
“I come to this church every Sunday. It feels like my second home,” said Dharshika Fernando, 19, fighting back tears.
“It feels like people blasted my own home.”
Later in the day, the cardinal made his first public appearance since the attacks to participate in a candlelight vigil for the victims.
Speaking to reporters, he expressed fears that the official investigation into the massacre would end up a “flop”.
“There is a certain amount of suspicion among our people that there will be no more follow-up, only words… If they (the authorities) are sincere, they must have a thorough investigation,” he said.
The cardinal has repeatedly assailed the authorities for failing to share intelligence reports that had warned of an impending jihadist attack against Christians.
Thousands of Sri Lankan troops remained on the streets, guarding churches and mosques for the symbolic day.
Security forces also carried out new arrests, a day after at least 15 people were killed in a raid on a jihadist hideout where suicide bombers blew themselves up.
Police said they searched the family home of two of the bombers and arrested one of their brothers. Elsewhere, more suspects were detained, bringing to 150 the number of people arrested since the bombings.
The prime minister said security forces had killed or arrested most of the jihadists linked to the attacks, which he said were carried out by a “small, but a well-organised group”.
“Most of them have been arrested. Some have died,” Wickremesinghe said in a statement. “Now we are able to return to normality”.
Authorities say they are also seeking about 140 followers of the Islamic State group.
Two of the latest suspects arrested, Mohamed Saadik Abdul Haq and Mohamed Saahid Abdul Haq, were on a list of six “most wanted” radicals issued on Thursday.
They were wanted for the December 26 desecration of Buddha statues in the central town of Mawanella, the act that first brought to prominence the National Thowheeth Jama’ath (NTJ) group, which has been blamed for the Easter bombings.
Schools stay closed
On Friday night, three men set off explosives, killing themselves, three women and six children after a showdown with security forces near the eastern town of Kalmunai.
Police said three other suspected suicide bombers were shot dead by security forces outside the hideout. A civilian was killed in crossfire.
IS, which claimed responsibility for the Easter bombings, said the three men who blew themselves up at Kalmunai were its members.
Kalmunai is in the same region as the hometown of the jihadist Zahran Hashim, who founded the NTJ.
Police said Hashim’s widow and their child were wounded in the Kalmunai raid.
“The woman and her four-year-old daughter are now being treated at a government hospital,” police spokesman Ruwan Gunasekera told AFP.
Gunasekera said DNA tests should help establish whether Hashim’s father was among those who perished at the safe house.
Another raid in the region targeted a house where authorities said Hashim and the other suicide bombers filmed a pledge of allegiance to IS before their attacks.
The video was shown by IS when it made its claim of responsibility.
The firebrand cleric is said to have died in the attack on the Shangri-La, one of three Colombo hotels hit by suicide bombers.
Sirisena on Sunday said he was using emergency powers to ban any form of face covering in public, “to ensure national security”.
The restriction will take effect from Monday, his office said in a statement.
Only a small number of women in Sri Lanka wear the face-covering niqab.
On Saturday, Sirisena used emergency powers to ban the NTJ and a splinter group, Jamathei Millathu Ibraheem (JMI).
In a sign of continuing tensions, the reopening of schools across Sri Lanka, originally scheduled for Monday, has been put back one week.