How a suicide bomber at one Sri Lankan church turned Easter celebration into ‘hell’

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Security personnel inspect the interior of St Sebastian's Church in Negombo, Colombo, that was shattered by an Easter Sunday bomb attack. (AP Photo/Gemunu Amarasinghe)
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Sri Lankan army soldiers secure the area around St. Sebastian's Church that was damaged in bomb attack in Negombo, north of Colombo on Easter Sunday, April 21, 2019. (AP Photo/Chamila Karunarathne)
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Security personnel inspect the interior of St Sebastian's Church in Negombo on April 22, 2019, a day after the church was hit in series of bomb blasts targeting churches and luxury hotels in Sri Lanka. (AFP / Jewel Samad)
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Blood stains are seen on the wall and on a Jesus Christ statue at St. Sebastian’s Church. (AP)
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Relatives carry a coffin for burial during the funerals of three members of the same family, all died at Easter Sunday bomb blast at St. Sebastian Church in Negombo, Sri Lanka, on April 22, 2019. (AP Photo/Gemunu Amarasinghe)
Updated 23 April 2019
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How a suicide bomber at one Sri Lankan church turned Easter celebration into ‘hell’

  • Priest from St. Sebastian’s parish and man who lost parents in the blast tell Arab News about the carnage
  • Two cabin crew from Saudi Arabian Airlines were among the foreign victims in Sunday’s attacks

DUBAI/COLOMBO: The children would have been gathered in the middle of St. Sebastian’s church with their families during the Easter Sunday morning mass when the bomber detonated his device, killing more than 100 people.

Just months before, on Jan. 20, the church congregation had celebrated its 150th anniversary, the building having recently undergone a major renovation.

But with the flick of a switch, its interior was reduced to rubble, mutilated bodies strewn across the pews and the floor where they had previously knelt to pray.

 “It was supposed to be a day of celebration,” said Dubai-based priest Father Jude Angelo. “Instead, we’re mourning such a terrible loss.”

He is currently the assistant priest at Jebel Ali Church in Dubai, but his home is the Sri Lankan village of Katuwapitiya, where he was a member of St. Sebastian’s parish, the site of the deadliest of Sunday’s attacks, which killed at least 290 and injured more than 500 in churches and hotels across the country.

 “I’ve been told that the bomber detonated his device while standing in the middle of the church,” he said.

 “That’s where most of the children — some very young — and their families would’ve been congregated. I don’t understand the meaning of this attack … I just feel numb.”

Father Angelo found out about the blast via his mobile phone: People sent him images from inside the church.

“I have no words to express what I saw in those images. The church is broken. I saw images of dead bodies … parts of bodies … You couldn’t tell who these people were, their bodies were so badly mutilated,” he said.

The congregation now has to plan for dozens of funerals. The roads leading to St. Sebastian’s are lined with white flags and throngs of crowds despite the heat.

Almost every other home along the lanes have banners hanging outside the walls, announcing deaths of family members. The whole neighborhood is in mourning.

Malith Wimanna was due to fly out for a conference in Malaysia on Monday, and went for mass on Saturday evening instead. His parents attended the Sunday mass, and both lost their lives in the attack.

“I ran to the church as soon as I heard about the attack,” he said. “It was hell. I couldn’t think of anything else. There was nothing to feel, nothing came to mind.”

Wimanna identified both his parents in the debris. He said both had possibly died instantly, and his father was almost unidentifiable.  

The government announced on Monday that the attackers were members of the National Tawheed Jamaath (NTJ), an extremist Muslim group that appeared after the Sri Lankan civil war ended in 2009. 

“The Catholics and Christians here are a very peaceful community,” said Father Anton Canisius, one of the many priests present at the funeral of Wimanna’s parents.

When asked about fears of the NTJ’s attacks propelling communal violence, the soft-spoken priest insisted that none of the Sri Lankan Catholic community would retaliate.

“There are people who’ll try to take advantage of these situations and try to make use of this. We’ve asked the government for security and for it to maintain peace,” he said.

Minister of Transport and Highways Kabeer Hashim on Monday announced compensation for those killed and injured in the blasts. He also said the damaged churches will be restored by the state to their original condition.

Easter is a popular time for holidaymakers to visit Sri Lanka from all over the world, and dozens of the victims of Sunday’s attacks were foreign tourists.

Among the foreigners killed were Mohamed Jafar and Hany Osman, cabin crew from Saudi Arabian Airlines, who were in transit at one of the three hotels hit. As of Monday evening their families, who had arrived in Colombo, had not yet finalized burial arrangements, though they were in consultation with the Saudi Embassy in Colombo, currently headed by Ambassador Abdulnasser Al-Harthi.

Tourism Minister John Amaratunga said in a statement that his ministry is working closely with the Foreign Ministry and local diplomatic missions to “ensure formalities with regard to the victims are sorted out as quickly as possible.”

He added: “The government has already offered assistance to all victims, the damaged places of worship as well as the hotels affected by Sunday’s attacks.”

Foreign victims were also from Japan, Australia, France, the US, India, Bangladesh, the UK, China, Turkey, Portugal, Spain, Belgium, the Netherlands and Denmark. They included three of the four children of Danish business tycoon Anders Holch Povlsen, who is the Nordic country’s richest man and a major private landowner in Britain. 

Seventeen foreigners injured in the attacks are also being treated at the Colombo National Hospital as well as a private hospital in Colombo, while others have been treated and discharged.

Many of the tourists were killed in suicide attacks that targeted four hotels. At the Cinnamon Grand Hotel in Colombo, a suicide bomber waited in a queue for the Easter Sunday breakfast buffet before setting off explosives strapped to his back.

 At the capital’s Shangri-La Hotel, Sri Lankan celebrity chef Shantha Mayadunne was enjoying breakfast with her family in the dining room. Her daughter Nisanga had posted a photo of the group on Facebook.

 Minutes later, a massive explosion ripped through the hall, killing several, including the mother and daughter.

 “It is with great sadness that we can confirm that we are aware of a number of casualties among our guests and colleagues. This includes three of our colleagues, who were fatally injured in the course of their duties,” a Shangri-La spokeswoman said in a statement.

 “We will continue to work closely with local authorities and emergency services to provide our fullest assistance and support to all affected parties,” she added.

 “Our hotel remains secured by the military and the police. We have also decided that the hotel will be closed until further notice.”

 The spokeswoman said the hotel is providing alternative accommodation for affected guests, and has set up a dedicated helpline for guests and their loved ones to call: +603 2025 4619.


New Chicago mayor gives Arabs hope

Updated 43 min 45 sec ago
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New Chicago mayor gives Arabs hope

  • The election of Lori Lightfoot as mayor gives Chicago’s Arabs an opportunity to reverse the damage that Rahm Emanuel has caused
  • Emanuel’s first acts as mayor included blocking the annual Arabesque Festival, which Jewish groups complained against

Plagued by ongoing controversies and criticism that he tried to hide a video of Chicago police killing a black teenager in October 2014, Rahm Emanuel decided he had had enough as the city’s mayor and decided to retire.

Elected in 2011 with a big boost from his former boss, US President Barack Obama — also a Chicago native — Emanuel served two full terms.

But his hopes of reversing the city’s tumbling finances, improving its poorly performing schools, and reversing record gun-related violence and killings, all failed.

However, Emanuel did have one success. He managed to gut the involvement of Chicago’s Arab-American minority in city-sponsored events, responding favorably to its influential Jewish-American community leadership, which complained about Palestinian activists who advocated for statehood and challenged Israeli oppression.

Emanuel’s first acts as mayor included blocking the annual Arabesque Festival, which Jewish groups complained included photographs of Palestinians protesting against Israel. The festival had only been launched four years earlier by his predecessor in 2007.

Emanuel also disbanded the Advisory Commission on Arab Affairs, and ended Arab American Heritage Month, which had been held every November since it was recognized by Harold Washington, Chicago’s first black mayor.

Emanuel refused to discuss his reasons for these decisions with leaders of Chicago’s Arab community.

He declined repeated requests by me to interview him, despite my having interviewed seven Chicago mayors. He declined similar requests from other Arab journalists.

While he hosted iftars for Muslims, he never hosted an Arab heritage celebration during his eight years in office.

His father was a leader of the Irgun, which was denounced as a terrorist organization in the 1940s by the British military.

The Irgun murdered British soldiers and thousands of Palestinian civilians, and orchestrated the bloody Deir Yassin massacre on April 9, 1948.

Before becoming mayor, Emanuel volunteered at an Israeli military base repairing damaged vehicles. His pro-Israel stance was never challenged by the mainstream US news media.

But with the election in February of Lori Lightfoot as mayor, Chicago’s Arabs have an opportunity to reverse the damage that Emanuel caused.

Lightfoot was sworn into office on Monday and serves for four years. She has already reached out to Arabs, appointing at least two Palestinians to her 400-person transition team, whose members often remain and assume government positions with new administrations.

The two Palestinians in her transition team are Rush Darwish and Rami Nashashibi. Darwish has organized several successful marathons in Chicago and Bethlehem to raise funds for the Palestine Children’s Relief Fund. Nashashibi is involved with the Inner-City Muslim Action Network (IMAN).

As an African American, Lightfoot knows what it is like to be the victim of racism, stereotypes and discrimination. That makes her more sensitive to the concerns of Chicago’s Arabs.