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(Morning Star News) – Christians in Sri Lanka have never seen such a large-scale attack on them as the one that hit three churches and three hotels on Easter Sunday (April 21), killing at least 290 people, they said.
“I don’t have words to express my pain,” a teary-eyed Eranda Weththasinghe told Morning Star News from Negombo, a predominantly Christian area north of Colombo where 104 worshippers died in a suicide bomb blast at St. Sebastian’s Church. “Tomorrow is going to be the mass funeral service, we only want prayers. We lost so many people.”
Weththasinghe said he lost several friends in the explosion that he witnessed, which the Sri Lankan government blamed on a local Islamic extremist group, the National Thowheed Jamaath. Officials said the small, obscure group could not have carried out the coordinated attacks without international accomplices.
“The smell of flesh is all around me,” Weththasinghe said. “We are a peace-loving community in this small city, we had never hurt anyone, but we don’t know from where this amount of hate is coming. This city has become a grave with blood and bodies lying around.”
Weththasinghe, who helped with rescue efforts after the blast, said some of his friends are still missing.
“Since the past three years, we don’t know why, but we see an extremist’s mindset developing among the Muslims,” he told Morning Star News. “I know many good Muslims, but there are also a lot who hate us, and they have never been so before. It is in these three years that we see a difference.”
While Christians in Sri Lanka have suffered at the hands of radical Buddhists and, increasingly, hard-line Hindus, attacks by Muslim extremists have been rare. Muslims account for 9.7 percent of Sri Lanka’s population of about 22 million, which is 70 Buddhist, 12.6 percent Hindu and 7.6 percent Christian, according to the country’s 2012 census.
Shyami Sirivardene, also a resident of Negombo, told Morning Star News that Negombo and parts of Colombo where the blasts took place are predominantly Christian areas.
“Negombo is fondly called the ‘little Rome,’ with shrines and ancient churches,” Sirivardene said. “We can’t say who is behind the attacks, but the locals suspect it to be the plot of Islamic extremists. The attacks have been planned to affect the Christian community; since the churches in these areas date back to 19th century, people flock in huge numbers to attend the Mass on Easter and Christmas.”
Residents in neighboring areas close to the church buildings join the previous Saturday Easter vigil service, and Christians come from distant areas to attend the Easter morning service, she said.
“They have been targeted,” she said. “Colombo to Negombo and surrounding towns and suburbs is hardly a half an hour drive using the highway, and most Christians prefer to travel by bus or drive on their own using another route, which takes about an hour or more depending on traffic. People are very furious and scared. The busy toll road from Colombo to Negombo connecting the airport somewhere in the midst is empty today.”
A government spokesman told media that police found 87 bomb detonators at the main bus station in Colombo, the capital.
Sirivardene added that the luxury restaurants targeted at the three bombed hotels serve special Easter buffets that attract foreigners, including those from the United States and Europe.
Besides St. Sebastian’s in Negombo, also attacked by suicide bombers were St. Anthony’s Shrine (a large Catholic church in the Kochchikade area of Colombo), and Zion Church in Batticaloa, in the eastern part of the country. Suicide bombers also detonated explosives in Colombo at the Shangri-La Hotel, the ground-floor Taprobane restaurant at the Cinnamon Grand Hotel and at the Kingsbury Hotel.
The suicide bomber blasts also reportedly wounded at least 500 people.
Biraj Patnaik, South Asia director for human rights group Amnesty International, told The Washington Post that the scale of the attacks were “shocking and unprecedented.” They were the worst in Colombo since 1996, when rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam detonated explosives at Sri Lanka’s central bank that killed nearly 100 people.
Sri Lankan police attempted to defuse another explosive substance found in a vehicle parked near St. Anthony’s Shrine, which was exploded without causing damage. Suspicious objects such as bags and boxes discovered in Kotahena and Pettah caused two more explosions.
“We have been asked to stay indoors, and tomorrow [April 23] would be the national mourning day,” said Sirivardene of Negombo. “There would be a mass funeral service for all the bodies collected so far.”
Health Minister Rajitha Senaratne said a foreign network was likely involved with the local Islamist group that carried out the attacks. The group’s name, National Thowheed Jamaath, roughly translates as the National Monotheism Organization.
He reportedly called on Police Inspector General Pujith Jayasundara to resign, as security agencies had received a report warning of attacks by the group against churches and hotels 10 days before.
A police memo reportedly issued in Sinhalese 10 days before the attack, entitled, “INFORMATION OF AN ALLEGED PLAN ATTACK” and stamped on April 11, said foreign intelligence officials suspected imminent attacks by the National Thowheeth Jamaath against non-Muslims. It instructed all police to be extra vigilant and cautious in monitoring locations under their jurisdiction. It is signed by Deputy Inspector General Priyalal Dissanayake.
Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wikremesinghe told media he did not know about the letter, saying, “Neither I nor any ministers were kept informed.”
President Maithripala Sirisena controls Sri Lanka’s security agencies, but since he tried to oust Wickremesinghe in an Oct. 26 coup, the prime minister has not been invited to security council meetings, a parliamentarian told The Washington Post.
Police have reportedly arrested 21 people in connection with the bombings. Three police officers were reportedly killed in a raid on a house where suspects were hiding.
In his Easter address, Pope Francis called the bombings “horrendous.” In his Easter Monday sermon today, he appealed for help for the people of Sri Lanka.
“I hope that everyone condemns these terrorist acts, inhuman acts, never justifiable,” he said.
Yousef A. al-Othaimeen, head of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, which represents 57 predominantly Muslim nations, “strongly condemned” the “cowardly attacks [on] innocent worshipers and civilians.”
Bishops Dhiloraj Canagasabey and Keerthisiri Fernando of Colombo, along with the Kurunagala Church of Ceylon, issued a joint statement condemning Sunday’s attacks.
“We call on the government to institute quick action to investigate thoroughly these incidents and to bring the perpetrators to justice, to ensure the safety of places of religious worship and to prevent any individuals or group taking the law into their hands or provoking acts of intimidation or violence against any community or group,” their statement said. “We ask for the continued support of all security and emergency services in ensuring public peace and in providing care for the affected; the motives of those twisted and warped minds who planned and executed such appalling acts could very well be to destabilize the country and to cause damage to the unity and harmony of our nation.”
Sri Lanka ranked 46th on Christian support organization Open Doors’ 2019 World Watch Listing of the 50 countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian, from its previous rank of 44th.
Photo 1: Sri Lankan Christians mourn (Angel TV Youtube)
Photo 2: Security memo issued 10 days before April 21 attacks warning of possible suicide bombing by Islamic extremist group National Thowheed Jamaath. (Twitter, Sri Lankan Ministry of Telecommunication)
Many of Iraq’s Christians celebrated their first Easter since returning to their homes. With the help of local churches and other organisations, people in the country’s largest Christian city, Qaraqosh (also known as Baghdida), have restored their homes and are now attempting to recover the lives they lost when the Islamic State group took over the city nearly four years ago.
The pastor of the Mar Behnam and Sarah Church, located in the centre of Qaraqosh, talks about how the city, which was deserted following IS’s onslaught, is starting to recover.
Through the sacrifice and resurrection of Jesus, God has redeemed us and calls us his children. May God bless us with great joy. Through Christ, we have been saved by grace, our chains have been broken and we now have freedom. Father, lead us and help us to resist temptation, to be united with Christ and life eternal in Your presence. O God bless us, in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen and Amen. Have a very blessed Easter Sunday remembering all the Lord has done and accomplished. Rejoice, the victory is won, LOVE wins!
In a report ucanews shared with Voice of the Persecuted, Catholics in Indonesia were warned by church officials to stay alert in the run up to and during Holy Week following a number of attacks on churches in several parts of the country.
Holy Week begins on March 25 this year.
On March 8, six men smashed their way into a chapel in Ogan Ilir district in South Sumatra and burned statues and liturgical ornaments before escaping.
A month earlier on Feb. 11, a man armed with a sword burst in on a Sunday Mass at a church in Yogyakarta’s, Sleman district and attacked a Dutch priest and three parishioners.
“We call on each parish and mission station to stay alert ahead of the observance of Holy Week and Easter. This is very important,” Sacred Heart of Jesus Father Felix Astono Atmojo, vicar-general of Palembang Archdiocese in South Sumatra, said on March 13.
“We don’t want the church attack to reoccur,” he said. Read full report here
(Mohabat News) – The Islamic regime’s Intelligence Service has addressed a secret letter to the Iranian Prisons Organization instructing them to prevent Christian prisoners from celebrating Easter.
Maf News reports that an anonymous source indicated that a letter has been sent out to the Prisons Organization ordering them to “cooperate with intelligence officers in preventing Christian prisoners from celebrating Easter”. The letter mentions Easter as a foreign tradition!
Many Christians are in Iranian prisons for their faith and many have reluctantly left the country due to intense pressure by the Islamic government of Iran.
In a similar story, Mohabat News reported earlier that Rajaei-Shahr prison organized a Christmas/New Year celebration for prisoners on December 30 and banned a number of Christian prisoners serving their sentence there from attending the celebration.
The Islamic regime of Iran claims that it respects the rights of religious minorities as well as their privacy. However, this claim has been proved wrong over and over again as the Islamic regime continues to oppress religious minorities, including Christians.
The prison authorities’ treatment of Christians in preventing them from celebrating the resurrection of their Lord, is an indicator of the Iranian regime’s overall policy toward Christians and other religious minorities.
For most Christians, Easter is much more than Easter egg hunts and new Sunday clothing to wear to church. Easter is the celebration of the resurrection of our Lord. For the most part, Christians in the West flock to churches in safety.
But for Christians living in countries like Iraq, Nigeria and Algeria, Easter takes on additional implications. It remains a precious and holy day, but one that also carries extra risk and danger.
In many countries around the world, Christians are an embattled minority. In fact, Christians are the largest persecuted religious group in the world today with at least 100 million Christians living in countries or regions where they are pressured, oppressed, imprisoned or even killed because of their faith. In a recent global survey from the Pew Research Center, 74 percent of the world’s people live in countries with high levels of religious hostility.
Last Easter 80 Christians living in Nigeria were killed and many were injured in a series of attacks on predominantly Christian villages in Plateau and Kaduna states.
The attackers were heavily armed, and most of their victims were children, women and elderly people. Many villagers fled to the nearby hills, and some who returned later were murdered. Christian leaders reported the destruction of 234 homes, the burning of eight church buildings and the displacement of as many as 4,500 Christians. READ MORE
BY DR DAVID CURRY Guest Contributor, CP
Iraqi Christians celebrated a largely peaceful Easter under heavy security as a newly elected Roman Catholic leader pledged to try to stop an exodus from the Middle East and rebuild the battered church community.
Soldiers and federal policemen in armored vehicles were posted outside churches and security patrols were increased in Christian areas. Because of Baghdad’s fragile security, at many churches the main Easter service traditionally ending at dawn Sunday morning was held Saturday night.
Iraq’s Christian population, which was believed to have topped 1 million before the war, dropped to half that as Christians fled attacks on their neighborhoods and churches. Many of them have resettled in the west. Tens of thousands of Christians who went to neighboring Syria for safety or to apply for refugee status are just now beginning to return as fighting rages in that country.
On Sunday morning in Baghdad, church bells rang out as families with children dressed in new Easter clothing greeted each other on the steps in the spring sunshine. The post-Saddam Iraqi government has continued a decades-long tradition of granting Christian government workers a two-day holiday for Easter.
At the main Chaldean Catholic mass late last night, the new Chaldean patriarch, dressed in a red cape and gold-embroidered, stone-encrusted headdress celebrated Easter with a few hundred parishioners in a mass carried live on state television.
Louis Raphael Sako was elected last month by a conference of bishops in Rome to head the Chaldean Catholic church, the largest of the Christian denominations in Iraq and Syria. The patriarch, whose official title is Patriarch of Babylon, is the most senior religious official of the church. It traces its roots back to Jesus’s apostle St. Thomas, who preached the gospel as he traveled through Iraq and Syria on his way to India.
Mr. Sako, who met Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki last week to urge him to meet with political opponents, called in his sermon yesterday for Iraqis to unite to help build prosperity and stability.
In an interview this week, Sako made clear that, after what he described as several years of stagnation, the church would focus on making it safe enough for Christians to remain in Iraq and on strengthening ties with the Muslim community.
“We must stay. This is our history. This is our patrimony. When we leave everything will leave with us,” says Sako. “Other Iraqis are also persecuted, not only Christians, so there is a solidarity among us.… They have to stay to struggle with the others.”
More than 1,000 Christians have been killed in the past 10 years and 60 churches have been attacked since Saddam Hussein was toppled, according to Sako. Although that is only a fraction of the number of Muslim victims, it is a much larger percentage of the overall community.
In the worst of the attacks, gunmen and suicide bombers stormed Our Lady of Salvation Syriac Catholic church during mass in 2010, killing 58 people, including priests. A group affiliated with Al Qaeda in Iraq claimed responsibility for the attack. The church has reopened but is now hidden behind high concrete walls, guarded by soldiers, and closed to all but regular parishioners.
That attack and fragile security in Baghdad, Mosul, and other centers with large Christian communities, sparked a new exodus.
A lack of priests has left only 18 Chaldean parishes, down from 30. In some areas where large numbers of Christians have been displaced and there are no priests, mass is held only once a month instead of daily or weekly.
The Chaldean population in Syria doubled to about 30,000 as Iraqi Christians fled there when it was safer. Some are now beginning to come back as their country of refuge falls apart.
Sako says emigration from Iraq mirrors the movement of Christians from other countries, where the Arab Spring has toppled dictators, but also removed much of the protection for Middle East Christians.
“They are scared – all Christians, not only Chaldeans,” says Sako. “The Arab Spring is not a spring. It has changed even in Egypt, in Tunisia, in Algeria, in Libya. Now the Islamists have the power – the authority.”
“People are afraid of a kind of Islamic state as it was in the 7th century where Christians would be considered a second-class citizen…. We want to keep [Iraq’s Christians] – to convince them that they can stay here and to live a good life,” he says.
Still ‘more freedom’ here
While some are still trying to leave Iraq, many of those who stayed form a tight-knit community, remembering the diverse, more tolerant country that existed before the war and they are determined not to leave it.
“I will never leave Iraq. We have more freedom here than any other country in the region,” says a retired academic attending mass at St. Joseph’s last night. However, the woman said she did not want her name used because she lives in Mosul, the site of many of the attacks on priests and parishioners. Her sister and brother-in-law were wounded in the attack at Our Lady of Salvation and are still undergoing medical treatment in France.
At the Easter ceremony at St. Joseph’s, a female parishioner delivered the reading from the gospel while altar girls joined boys in the procession. Young women in tight jeans with long, flowing hair stood next to older women in black with lace scarves on their heads.
Sako – who has studied Islam and speaks French, English, Italian, and German in addition to Arabic and the Aramaic spoken by most Chaldeans – was known for building strong ties with Muslim religious and political officials when he was Archbishop of Kirkuk before being elected patriarch.
Kirkuk, in the middle of Iraq’s northern oil fields, is disputed territory, claimed by the central government, as well as by Kurds and Turkmen.
He says Christians have been swept into the wider struggle for power in Iraq, which includes sectarian violence as well as conflict between the Kurdish and central governments.
“Shiites, Sunnis, Christians are also a victim of this conflict – we don’t understand why they are attacking Christians because we don’t have any political ambition,” he says. “We don’t want to set up a Christian regime in Iraq but there is a struggle between Shiite and Sunni – and between the Kurds. The future is not known.” Source