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Sri Lanka: churches shut as worshippers mourn one week after bombings

Cardinal Ranjith delivers televised sermon as bells ring out across the country

It was the first Sunday anyone could remember without a mass at St Sebastians.

A week since the bombings that killed at least 250 people, Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, Sri Lankas most senior Catholic, had ordered the countrys churches not to hold services until police could be sure they would not be attacked.

In a televised mass, Ranjith delivered a homily before members of the clergy and the countrys leaders in a small chapel at his Colombo residence but in Negombo, those who could not bear to stay home came anyway.

Channa Rejunjoyne has been making candles for St Sebastians church for decades. He had attended mass the night before the attack. His wife and nine-year-old daughter were both there the next morning.

Now he was alone, standing outside the church gate, thumbs in his pockets, staring intensely at nothing in particular. I feel a deep sense of sorrow, Rejunjoyne, 49, said. I have buried my wife and child.

A priest had asked if he might like to come and help with the clean-up on Sunday. So he came. What else was he going to do? Theres no one at home, he said.

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A Sri Lankan priest holds up a statue in front of St Anthonys Shrine in Colombo. Photograph: Lakruwan Wanniarachchi/AFP/Getty Images

A service was held inside the gutted nave of St Sebastians, but was open only to priests and nuns, with heavily armed Sri Lankan navy and police guards standing at the ready outside the gate.

Near them, Lakshan Anthony was leaning on his motor scooter, head tilted, observing the place where his seven-year-old son had died the Sunday before.

My two-year-old son is asking for his mother, but who do I provide? he asked. She had lost an eye and was paralysed from a spinal injury sustained in the blast.

The initial shock was starting to subside, and Anthonys mind was turning to practical matters. Who would pay her medical bills? The government has said we will get 1m rupees [4,400] compensation, he said. Even that, I dont want to crawl up to some politician to get it. I feel thats demeaning.

At precisely 8.45pm, about the time a man with a backpack entered the premises last week, turned his back to parishioners, and pressed his trigger, St Sebastians church bell sounded. It rang continuously for five minutes. Anthony listened from in front of a church gate covered in posters of the dead, his eyes flickering, his fists clenched.

Next to him, Sebastian Fernando was kneeling on his sandals, his hand curled around a small red candle cupped in his palm.

He had delivered the introductory prayer at the service last Sunday. But his seven-year-old nephew was hungry, and the pair had gone out to his car to retrieve some food. The mass had nearly ended, and the boy insisted on standing at the gate to watch the procession that would follow.

I was standing there, looking towards the church, when the explosion happened, Fernando said. He dropped the boy at home, rushed back and started ferrying the injured to hospital.

After the ambulances came, my shirt was drenched in blood, so I went home, he said. Today I came to say a prayer for the dead and the living.

Devotees
Devotees offer prayers outside St Anthonys. Photograph: STR/EPA

In a rare show of unity, the president, Maithripala Sirisena, the prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, and the opposition leader, Mahinda Rajapaksa, attended the mass given by Cardinal Ranjith. Their political rivalry and government dysfunction have been blamed for a failure to act upon intelligence that preceded the bombings.

This is a time our hearts are tested by the great destruction that took place last Sunday. This is a time questions such as does God truly love us, does He have compassion towards us, can arise in human hearts, the cardinal said.

All Sri Lankan churches were asked to ring bells on Sunday while the lamp lighting took place.

The US embassy in Colombo has warned against attending any service at a place of worship this weekend.

In the eastern district of Ampara on Sunday, where a gunfight and explosions the previous day left 15 people dead near the eastern town of Kalmunai, soldiers guarded St Mary Magdalens church. A sign on the gate said the church and the school would be closed until 6 May. A nearby mosque also had soldiers stationed outside.

Alleged members of the terrorist cell were still being hunted on Sunday. Islamic State claimed three suicide bombers who had detonated their payloads when police raided their safe house on Friday night.

Police are finding the fingerprints of the extremist network on other crimes, including the murder and mutilation of two police officers in the east of the country last November.

Most of Negombos dead are now buried, and thoughts are turning to reconstruction. Flat-bed trucks arrived on Sunday morning to clear out what is left of the debris. St Anthonys, the church that was hit in Colombo, was scrubbed with soap and water on Saturday to clear the blood from its floor, walls and roof.

New dilemmas are arising. What do you do with the possessions of households where no one survived? Nobody knows, said WA Priyanci, as she shopped for meat down the street from St Sebastians. Its shocking to have lost whole families, some completely wiped out.

Leslie Appuhami, 59, thinks of those he lost: his sister, a niece and a brother-in-law. His memory is clouded with the things he saw in the church. But that isnt all he remembers from the aftermath of the blast.

I recall how, like in the other churches, we teamed together, worked together to rush people out after the explosion, he said.

Appuhami had used a PA system on his van to circle the neighbourhood, announcing: This is not an accident, its a bomb. We need vehicles to help us bring the wounded to hospital. And people came. Before the emergency services showed up, we were doing it ourselves, he said.

An electrical engineer, he was back again on Sunday morning to see if he could start to help with repairs. I only wish that what happened here is never repeated in any church, mosque or temple anywhere in the world, he said.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/apr/28/sri-lanka-churches-shut-as-tv-service-replaces-first-mass-since-bombings

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