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

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.

Indian authorities bar opposition from visiting Kashmir

Updated 24 August 2019

Indian authorities bar opposition from visiting Kashmir

  • Authorities sent the opposition leaders back to New Delhi after they waited for several hours at the airport in Srinagar
  • On the Pakistani side of Kashmir, police stopped hundreds of journalists from symbolically trying to cross the highly militarized border

NEW DELHI: India’s government on Saturday barred several opposition leaders from visiting Indian-administered Kashmir to assess the situation created by a massive security crackdown in the region that started early this month.
Authorities sent the opposition leaders back to New Delhi after they waited for several hours at the airport in Srinagar, the main city in the region, said Vineet Punia, an official with the opposition Congress party. He said the opposition leaders had returned to New Delhi.
On the Pakistani side of Kashmir, police stopped hundreds of journalists from symbolically trying to cross the highly militarized border into Indian-controlled Kashmir.
The Indian opposition leaders, representing nine political parties, flew to Srinagar from New Delhi nearly three weeks after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government revoked Muslim-majority Kashmir’s decades-old special status guaranteed under India’s constitution. The government followed the move with an intense crackdown including a media blackout and backed by thousands of troops.
The opposition leaders included Rahul Gandhi of the Congress party, Sitaram Yechury of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), Sharad Yadav of Janata Dal (United) and Majeed Memon of the National Conference.
Authorities on Friday had advised them against visiting the region, citing a sensitive law and order situation. But there was no official comment on Saturday on disallowing the opposition leaders from visiting Srinagar and other parts of the region.
“We are not going to disturb peace there,” Majeed Memon of the Nationalist Congress Party told reporters in New Delhi before boarding the flight to Srinagar.
Ghulam Nabi Azad, a Congress party leader, said part of the reason for the visit was to look into the government’s claims that normalcy is returning to the region. “We are going to assess the situation there and find out the ground reality,” he said.
The changes in Indian-controlled Kashmir’s status allow anyone to buy land in the territory, which some Kashmiris fear could mean an influx of Hindus who would change the region’s culture and demographics.
Indian authorities are gradually easing restrictions, allowing some businesses to reopen in Srinagar and other places. Landline phone service has been restored in some areas. Officials also say they have opened grade schools, but both student and teacher attendance has been sparse.
Also Saturday, Pakistani police prevented hundreds of journalists from crossing into Indian-controlled Kashmir.
The journalists’ leader, Zafeer Baba, said the protest was an attempt to report on the situation in Kashmir. Journalists from Islamabad and other cities also traveled to Muzaffarabad to take part in the protest.
Local Kashmiris joined the journalists’ protest, chanting slogans against what they said was “Indian oppression” and in solidarity with Kashmiris.
Pakistani police officer Arshad Naqvi said the journalists’ vehicles were stopped around 7 kilometers (4 miles) from the Line of Control, which divides the Himalayan region.
Meanwhile, Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi said he spoke by phone with UN Secretary General António Guterres and discussed alleged human rights violations by India and the security situation in Indian-controlled Kashmir.
Kashmir is divided between Pakistan and India but claimed by both in its entirety. The nuclear-armed archrivals have fought two of their three wars over Kashmir since gaining independence from British rule in 1947.