Sri Lanka Catholics cancel Sunday Masses after bombing

  • A Sri Lankan catholic priest stands near broken glass in front St. Anthony's Church in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Friday, April 26, 2019. Priests have allowed journalists inside St. Anthony's Church in Sri Lanka for the first time since it was targeted in a series of Islamic State-claimed suicide bombings that killed over 250 people. Broken glass littered the sanctuary's damaged pews and blood stained the floor. Shoes left by panicked worshippers remained in the darkened church, and broken bottles of holy water lay on the floor. (AP Photo/Manish Swarup) Manish Swarup

  • The archbishop of Colombo Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith addresses a press conference in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Friday, April 26, 2019. The archbishop said that there will be no Sunday Masses until further notice after the Easter bombings in Sri Lanka. (AP Photo/Manish Swarup) Manish Swarup

  • In this Thursday, April 25, 2019 photo, a stained-glass window stands broken at Sebastian's Church, where a suicide bomber blew himself up on Easter Sunday in Negombo, north of Colombo, Sri Lanka. Nearly a week later, the smell of death is everywhere, though the bodies are long gone. Yet somehow, there’s a beauty to St. Sebastian’s, a neighborhood church in a Catholic enclave north of Sri Lanka’s capital. You can see the beauty in the broken stained-glass windows. It’s there as the sun shines through the roof’s gaping holes. It’s there in the little statues that refused to fall over, and despite the swarms of police and soldiers who seem to be everywhere now in the streets of the seaside town of Negombo. (AP Photo/Manish Swarup) Manish Swarup

  • Sri Lankan Army soldiers stand guard in front St. Anthony's Church or Shrine in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Friday, April 26, 2019. Priests have allowed journalists inside St. Anthony's Church in Sri Lanka for the first time since it was targeted in a series of Islamic State-claimed suicide bombings that killed over 250 people. Broken glass littered the sanctuary's damaged pews and blood stained the floor. Shoes left by panicked worshippers remained in the darkened church, and broken bottles of holy water lay on the floor. (AP Photo/Manish Swarup) Manish Swarup

  • In this Thursday, April 25, 2019 photo, a statue of St. Jude stands on a wall speckled with fragments of shrapnel at St. Sebastian's Church in Negombo, north of Colombo, Sri Lanka. Nearly a week later, the smell of death is everywhere, though the bodies are long gone. Yet somehow, there’s a beauty to St. Sebastian’s, a neighborhood church in a Catholic enclave north of Sri Lanka’s capital, where a man calmly walked in during Easter services with a heavy backpack and blew himself up. It’s there in the little statues that refused to fall over, and despite the swarms of police and soldiers who seem to be everywhere now in the streets of the seaside town of Negombo. (AP Photo/Manish Swarup) Manish Swarup

  • In this Thursday, April 25, 2019 photo, a surveyor walks inside the damaged St. Sebastian's Church where a suicide bomber blew himself up on Sunday Easter in Negombo, north of Colombo, Sri Lanka. Nearly a week later, even after the cleaners have come through, the blood can still be seen clearly. The statues of Jesus and the saints are still speckled with fragments of shrapnel. The smell of death is everywhere, though the bodies are long gone. (AP Photo/Manish Swarup) Manish Swarup

  • In this Thursday, April 25, 2019 photo, a bird flies over St. Sebastian's Church, where a suicide bomber blew himself up on Easter Sunday in Negombo, north of Colombo, Sri Lanka. Nearly a week later, the smell of death is everywhere, though the bodies are long gone. From inside, you see destruction wherever you look. But from outside the church, if you ignore the police tape and if you’re standing far enough away, you might think nothing had happened there at all. (AP Photo/Manish Swarup) Manish Swarup

  • In this Thursday, April 25, 2019 photo, Catholic priests walk outside St. Sebastian's Church, where a suicide bomber blew himself up on Easter Sunday in Negombo, north of Colombo, Sri Lanka. Nearly a week later, the smell of death is everywhere, though the bodies are long gone. From inside, you see destruction wherever you look. But from outside the church, if you ignore the police tape and if you’re standing far enough away, you might think nothing had happened there at all. (AP Photo/Manish Swarup) Manish Swarup

  • A man reads a newspaper as air force officers stand guard outside St. Anthony's Shrine in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Friday, April 26, 2019. (AP Photo/Gemunu Amarasinghe) Gemunu Amarasinghe

  • A Muslim volunteer assigned to spot unfamiliar visitors looks at a man ahead of Friday prayers in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Friday, April 26, 2019. Religious leaders cancelled large public gatherings amid warnings of more attacks, along with retaliatory sectarian violence in Sri Lanka though some still held communal Friday prayers at mosques. (AP Photo/Gemunu Amarasinghe) Gemunu Amarasinghe

  • Sri Lankan Muslims leave after offering Friday prayers in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Friday, April 26, 2019. Across Colombo, there was a visible increase of security as authorities warned of another attack and pursued suspects that could have access to explosives. Authorities had told Muslims to pray at home rather than attend communal Friday prayers that are the most important religious service for the faithful. At one mosque in Colombo where prayers were still held, police armed with Kalashnikov assault rifles stood guard outside. (AP Photo/Manish Swarup) Manish Swarup

  • Muslim men arrive as others pray at a mosque in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Friday, April 26, 2019. Religious leaders cancelled large public gatherings amid warnings of more attacks, along with retaliatory sectarian violence in Sri Lanka though some still held communal Friday prayers at mosques. (AP Photo/Gemunu Amarasinghe) Gemunu Amarasinghe

  • Muslim men gather outside a mosque in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Friday, April 26, 2019. Sri Lanka’s president has appealed to the island nation not to view its minority Muslim community as terrorists in the wake of Easter Sunday attacks that officials say were carried out by a local Muslim extremist group.. (AP Photo/Gemunu Amarasinghe) Gemunu Amarasinghe

  • Sri Lanka's Islam devotees gather outside a mosque in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Friday, April 26, 2019. Religious leaders cancelled large public gatherings amid warnings of more attacks, along with retaliatory sectarian violence in Sri Lanka though some still planned to hold communal Friday prayers at mosques. (AP Photo/Gemunu Amarasinghe) Gemunu Amarasinghe

  • A Muslim woman walks outside a Mosque in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Friday, April 26, 2019. Religious leaders cancelled large public gatherings amid warnings of more attacks, along with retaliatory sectarian violence in Sri Lanka though some still planned to hold communal Friday prayers at mosques. (AP Photo/Gemunu Amarasinghe) Gemunu Amarasinghe

  • A Muslim man points to prayer timings inside a mosque in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Friday, April 26, 2019. Religious leaders cancelled large public gatherings amid warnings of more attacks, along with retaliatory sectarian violence in Sri Lanka though some still planned to hold communal Friday prayers at mosques. (AP Photo/Gemunu Amarasinghe) Gemunu Amarasinghe

  • A caT walks as air force officers stand guard outside St. Anthony's Shrine, one of the three churches struck on Sunday in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Friday, April 26, 2019. Heavy security is out on the streets of Sri Lanka's capital after warnings of further attacks by the militant group blamed for the Easter bombing that killed at least 250 people. (AP Photo/Gemunu Amarasinghe) Gemunu Amarasinghe

  • A Sri Lankan soldier stands guard at the damaged St. Anthony's Church or Shrine in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Friday, April 26, 2019. Priests have allowed journalists inside St. Anthony's Church in Sri Lanka for the first time since it was targeted in a series of Islamic State-claimed suicide bombings that killed over 250 people. Broken glass littered the sanctuary's damaged pews and blood stained the floor. Shoes left by panicked worshippers remained in the darkened church, and broken bottles of holy water lay on the floor. (AP Photo/Manish Swarup) Manish Swarup

Published: 4/26/2019 12:34:39 PM

Catholic churches in Sri Lanka canceled all Sunday Masses until further notice over fears of more attacks from Islamic State-linked extremists, and the military said its soldiers in the eastern part of the country exchanged gunfire Friday night with suspects believed linked to the Easter bombings.

Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith told journalists that church officials had seen a leaked security document describing Catholic churches and other denominations as major targets for attackers. Ranjith, who is archbishop of Colombo, also asked the faithful to stay home for their own safety.

“We don’t want repetitions,” Ranjith said in canceling the services.

The cardinal’s comments come after the U.S. Embassy in Sri Lanka warned the public to stay away from places of worship over the weekend, a stark alert underlining that authorities believe that members of the group remain at large.

The group’s leader, Mohamed Zahran, killed himself in a suicide bombing at the Shangri-La hotel, one of six hotels and churches targeted in the attacks that killed at least 250 people on Sunday, police said.

Police also said they had arrested the second in command of the group, known as National Towheed Jamaat.

In Sri Lanka’s Eastern Province, soldiers raiding a building found themselves in a gunbattle with suspected militants linked to the bombings, said Brig. Sumith Atapattu.

Increased security was visible across Colombo as authorities warned of possible new attacks and pursued suspects who could have access to explosives. Authorities told Muslims to pray at home rather than attend communal Friday prayers that are the most important religious service of the week. Several mosques held services despite the warning. At one mosque in Colombo, police armed with Kalashnikov assault rifles stood guard outside.

Also on Friday, officials allowed journalists inside one of the bombed churches, St. Anthony’s Shrine in Colombo.

Broken glass littered the darkened sanctuary’s broken pews and blood stained the floor. Shoes were left behind by panicked worshippers. Broken bottles of holy water lay on the floor, where flowers were strewn. Armed soldiers stood guard outside.

Gration Fernando crossed himself when he looked at the church after walking out of his shop nearby. Fernando said he, like other Sri Lankans, is worried about further attacks.

There is “no security, no safety to go to church,” he said. “Now children are scared to go to church.”

Australia’s prime minister said it had been confirmed that the Sri Lanka attackers were supported by the Islamic State group, which has claimed responsibility for the massacre. The group has distributed a video of Zahran and others pledging allegiance to the withered caliphate.

Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena told reporters that about 140 people had been identified as having links to the Islamic State group, and that the government has the capability “to completely control” ISIS activities in the country.

“We will completely control this and create a free and peaceful environment for people to live,” he said.

Police said investigators had determined that the attackers’ military training was provided by someone they called “Army Mohideen,” and that weapons training had taken place overseas and at some locations in Sri Lanka’s Eastern Province.

Police also said they arrested the operator of a copper factory who had helped Mohideen make improvised explosive devices and purchase empty cartridges sold by the Sri Lankan military as scrap copper.

Sirisena blamed Sri Lanka’s defense secretary, who resigned Thursday, and police chief, who he said would soon step down, for failing to share information from international intelligence agencies about the plot.

Late on Thursday, Sri Lanka’s health ministry drastically reduced its estimated death toll from the bombings. A statement said “approximately” 253 people had died, nearly one-third lower than the police’s earlier estimated toll of 359.

The discrepancy was not immediately explained, but it fit a pattern of conflicting information by Sri Lankan officials that have muddled the investigation.

In a predominantly Muslim area of Colombo’s Maligawatta neighborhood, vegetable sellers set out their produce on sidewalks near the mosques as women in long black chadors shopped.

Imtiyas Ahamed, a leader at a mosque, said extremists like those from the Islamic State group were not faithful Muslims.

“In Islam, it is not said to kill yourself and kill others,” Ahamed said.

As he spoke, men came into the mosque to pray on a purple-and-gray carpet.

Abdullah Mohammed, 48, another local Muslim, stood outside.

“Everyone is nervous,” Mohammed said. “Not just the Muslims. Buddhists, Christians, Hindus – everybody’s nervous.”

Ahamed also urged people not to think that all of Sri Lanka’s Muslims were like the people who carried out Sunday’s attacks.

“After the New Zealand (mosque) attack, we don’t think every white Australian is an extremist,” he said.




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