Sri Lankan Catholics go back to church

Catholic churches in Colombo yesterday held their first regular Sunday Mass since the Easter suicide bombings that killed at least 258 people and wounded nearly 500.

Thousands of Catholics attended mass in Sri Lanka’s capital amid tight security to prevent a repeat of the April 21 attacks when suicide bombers targeted two Catholic churches, one Protestant church and three luxury hotels.

Soldiers armed with automatic assault rifles guarded St Theresa’s church in Colombo’s Thimbirigasyaya district, doing body searches of worshippers for explosives, and not allowing any vehicles into the church car park.

Regular services were cancelled across all churches after the deadly bombings, but the Archbishop of Colombo Cardinal, Malcolm Ranjith, reached out to shocked parishioners by conducting private Sunday services in his residence, which were broadcast live on national television.

After announcing that mass would be held in his diocese from Sunday, the Cardinal said a special mass for the victims of the attack at St Lucia’s Cathedral on Saturday, with the congregation made up of relatives of victims and survivors.

Most churches outside Colombo had resumed regular services from last week, but under tight security provided by the local police.

Catholic private schools, which remained closed after the Easter holidays, will reopen on Tuesday, May 14, if church officials are satisfied with security measures. All state-run schools – more than 10,000 across the country – resumed classes last week under police guard but attendance has been low.

Last week, Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena told the Associated Press that it was safe for tourists to return to the Indian Ocean island nation, which over the past decade has emerged from a Tamil separatist war.

Sri Lankan authorities claim to have killed or arrested those responsible for the Easter Sunday bombings after blaming two previously little-known jihadist groups, National Towheed Jamaat (NTJ) and Jammiyathul Millathu Ibrahim, led by preacher Zahran Hashim.

Meanwhile, Reuters reports that Sri Lankan authorities have arrested a Saudi-educated scholar for alleged links with Zahran. The suspect is Mohamed Aliyar, 60, founder of the Centre for Islamic Guidance, which has a mosque, a religious school and a library in Kattankudy, a Muslim-dominated city in Sri Lanka’s east that is Zahran’s hometown.

“Information has been revealed that the suspect arrested had a close relationship with … Zahran and had been operating financial transactions,” a police statement said.

It added that Aliyar was “involved” with training in the southern town of Hambantota for the group of suicide bombers who attacked hotels and churches.