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‘I don’t have words for what I saw’

Sri Lankan churches begin their recovery from Easter bombings amid ongoing threats and restrictions

‘I don’t have words for what I saw’

A view inside St. Sebastian’s. (Chamila Karunarathne/AP)

Jeyaraj Sivarajasingam was heading to Easter services at Jampettah Methodist Church in Colombo, the Sri Lankan capital, when he heard the bomb blast.

It was unmistakable, he said, coming from the direction of St. Anthony’s Shrine, a Catholic church about three city blocks away. “I ran to the church because I know many people there,” said Sivarajasingam, who is national director of Lanka Prison Fellowship.

For more than a decade Sivarajasingam, who is Protestant, worked in youth ministry in the neighborhoods near Colombo Harbor where suicide bombers on April 21 launched the first of six near-simultaneous explosions across the breadth of Sri Lanka. The attacks, which targeted three churches and three luxury hotels, killed 257 people and injured more than 500. Nearly all the victims—about 225 people—died in their churches just as Easter morning services were getting underway.

At St. Anthony’s, the largest Catholic church in the capital, about 1,000 worshippers attended 8 a.m. Mass. The men crowded at the back, and women and children wedged into pews. They had just stood to recite a prayer when a fireball engulfed the sanctuary and its 18th-century façade. The church’s clock stopped at that moment, 8:45 a.m.

“There were wounded people everywhere,” Sivarajasingam said. “A lot of people without heads, bodies only, and some people missing hands or legs. It was very, very … I don’t have words for what I saw.”

Sivarajasingam and scores of others worked feverishly to rescue the wounded and those fleeing the fire in those first moments, he said, “with always the fear of the next bomb blast. It was very terrible.”

Eranga Jayawardena/AP

Sri Lankan soldiers stand guard in front of St. Anthony’s a day after the series of blasts. (Eranga Jayawardena/AP)

As suicide bombers detonated backpacks crammed with explosives at crowded churches and hotels across the island nation, Sivarajasingam questioned how a loving God could allow His worshippers to face so bloody an Easter Sunday. “We went to church to worship the risen Lord, and Catholic people did the same. But at that moment I really thought, ‘Is He alive? Why did He not stop this kind of brutal attack? He is the Almighty.’ There were more than 100 wounded around me, and I really got mad. I did not have answers for what I was seeing.”

In the weeks following the Easter bombings, the country’s small but vibrant Christian community has been searching for many answers surrounding why it was the target of one of the largest attacks by Islamist terrorists in the past five years. With hundreds of families facing losses, and hundreds still hospitalized, the close-knit churches face mounting financial costs and emotional scars. Confronted with ongoing threats, they have been forced to cancel Sunday services and other gatherings.

Besides St. Anthony’s, the suicide bombers struck St. Sebastian’s, another Catholic church 20 miles north of the capital in Negombo, then Zion Church in Batticaloa on the east coast, one of the country’s largest evangelical churches. In between, they hit the Shangri-La Hotel’s Table One Restaurant in Colombo—a popular spot for foreign tourists where Easter brunch was underway—along with the Kingsbury Hotel and the Cinnamon Grand.

The same day, an afternoon hotel explosion killed two people. Then Sri Lankan air force personnel defused a pipe bomb loaded with 110 pounds of explosives at an airport near Negombo, and three policemen died when a suspect they were questioning detonated herself.

Ishara S. Kodikara/AFP/Getty Images

A Catholic family in Negombo follows a TV service at home.  (Ishara S. Kodikara/AFP/Getty Images)

Sri Lanka, situated off the southern tip of India with 22 million people, endured a brutal 16-year civil war that ended in 2009, but it has mostly escaped jihadist attacks.

Churches have experienced violence at the hands of Buddhist and Hindu nationalists. In 2017 a mob led by a Buddhist monk attacked and destroyed a fast-growing evangelical church in the northwestern town of Paharaiya.

But church leaders say they were completely surprised by the Easter attacks. Unlike other countries where ISIS and its affiliates have targeted Christians—like Iraq, Egypt, and Pakistan—Muslims in Sri Lanka are a minority, making up less than 10 percent of the population, as do Christians. Sivarajasingam and other church leaders I spoke to said they have had warm relationships with Muslims, including in the neighborhoods of the attacks. “We did not think Islamic people would do this against innocent people, and the government did not take threats seriously,” said Sivarajasingam.

Indian authorities warned the Sri Lankan government of specific threats against these churches for weeks before Easter, and also on the morning of the attacks, yet the government took no action. Officials blamed a local jihadist group, National Thowheeth Jama’ath, and its leader, Zaharan Hashim.

Two days after the attack, an official ISIS media channel released a video of the bombers that included Hashim, all pledging allegiance to Islamic State. Then, unexpectedly, ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi appeared in a video claiming the Sri Lanka attacks and announcing the expansion of Islamic State beyond its Middle East hub. It was Baghdadi’s first appearance since 2014 and followed dozens of unverified reports of his death—all underscoring the seriousness of ongoing ISIS threats to churches. With Sri Lanka attacks, he boasted, jihad against “the crusaders” will “continue until doomsday.”

Experts widely viewed the video as an attempt to rally ISIS supporters following the group’s defeat in March in Syria. As Baghdadi spoke in the video, one of his aides handed him folders bearing the names of Islamic State “provinces,” including West Africa, Somalia, Egypt’s Sinai, Libya, Central Africa, the Caucasus, and Turkey.

Allison Joyce/Getty Images

Members of Zion Church pray at a May 5 service. (Allison Joyce/Getty Images)

A West Africa affiliate got the message, attacking on April 28 an Assemblies of God church in Burkina Faso, one of the oldest Protestant congregations in the region, one week after the Easter bombings and just as its service was ending. Gunmen killed five members of the congregation along with Pierre Ouédraogo, 80, the church’s pastor since its founding in the 1980s.

According to World Watch Monitor, the assailants gathered the victims under a tree, took their Bibles and mobile phones, and ordered them to convert. They refused and were shot and killed, one by one. It was the first such attack in the region, which borders Mali.

Sri Lankan Christians fear they may have been the first to fall victim to a new global strategy by Islamic State, targeting far-flung but high-profile churches. Improving security is an urgent task.

“We move with caution and mostly stay indoors in order to allow the armed forces to carry out their operations,” said one pastor who supervises a network of Protestant churches, and is not named for security reasons. “But we pray with fervor. We represent Christ with much boldness. We are filled with hope like never before.”

Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, the Catholic Archbishop of Colombo, has been critical of the government for failing to act on known threats, saying his churches would’ve canceled Easter services if they’d been properly informed. On May 2 Ranjith announced he was closing Catholic churches and schools “until further notice,” after receiving “foreign information” of additional planned attacks.

The United States issued a warning too. “We certainly have reason to believe that the active attack group has not been fully rendered inactive. We do believe that there is active planning underway,” said U.S. Ambassador Alaina Teplitz.

Allison Joyce/Getty Images

A father comforts his 6-year-old son as he is treated by a nurse in a Batticaloa hospital. (Allison Joyce/Getty Images)

Sivarajasingam said that while there has been unrest over the government’s handling of the bombings, most Christians are willing to live with the restrictions. Many churches met in homes—“small groups of 20 or 25,” he said—and may do that for some time. Other religious activities are suspended also: Authorities informed Lanka Prison Fellowship that they will halt chaplain visits to prisons for at least a month—for Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, and Muslims. Sivarajasingam’s ministry has 60 such Christian chaplains working at 29 prisons across the country.

The National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka (NCEASL) is drafting a security manual to guide its churches on protecting both human life and physical property, building fire escapes and back entrances, plus adding security, said Advocacy and Research Officer Annouchka Wijesinghe.

For now, NCEASL and most churches are focused on helping the families of those killed and wounded.

Casualty figures are difficult to confirm, said Wijesinghe, because victims from the churches and the hotels were taken to different hospitals. Many victims were Easter visitors, making an accurate count also challenging. More grotesque, the number of exploded body parts further complicates the task. 

The government revised the overall death toll on May 2 to 257 people confirmed dead, and officials believe 20 percent of the dead are children. About 90 people died at St. Anthony’s in Colombo, and more than 100 people died at St. Sebastian’s in Negombo. Wijesinghe told me on May 3 that the toll at Zion Church in Batticaloa stood at 29 confirmed dead, with 14 of those victims under the age of 14.

Hundreds remain wounded and hospitalized, some hovering between life and death. One victim at Zion Church was in a coma two weeks after the blasts, needing brain surgery but not stable enough for the procedure. Another, a mother, died from brain injuries after several days in a coma. Her son remains hospitalized.

“The Protestant community has rallied around Zion Church as its focus. People are not only physically wounded but emotionally and spiritually wounded. Many families have lost children and children have lost parents,” said Ajith Fernando, the longtime Bible teacher and scholar who for 35 years served as director of Youth for Christ in Sri Lanka. “You do not recover easily from this,” he said.

Gemunu Amarasinghe/AP

Relatives place flowers after the burial of three victims of the same family who died at St. Sebastian’s Church. (Gemunu Amarasinghe/AP)

Fernando has preached many times at Zion, he told me, and knows many of its members among the dead and wounded. He said his primary task was to help Christians “know how to think” following the attacks. Fernando gave a talk for Christian television in English and Sinhala that aired several times during the week following the attacks.

“We have to help the flock make this an opportunity for witness,” he said, “because God is sovereign. We believe this.”

At the same time, such widespread trauma burdens churches financially. NCEASL already has provided emergency funds to 30 families to cover funeral expenses and to 59 injured church members. The organization is raising funds among Protestant congregations to further support families who have lost breadwinners, plus cover “advanced medical expenses,” including artificial limbs, said Wijesinghe.

American aid groups also are stepping in to help victims with physical needs and psychological recovery, including Christian Freedom International, Open Doors, and Samaritan’s Purse. Two American pastors from New York, William Devlin and Dimas Salaberrios, visited each of the churches in early May to deliver cash assistance raised by REDEEM!, a New York–based nonprofit.

Batticaloa, where Zion Church is located, has survived hardship before. The coastal town lost 2,000 residents in the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. Chrishanthini Ramesh, a Sunday school teacher at Zion Church, is one of the survivors that NCEASL hopes to help long term. Her husband Ramesh Raju died during the attack, after questioning the man who turned out to be the suicide bomber at Zion.

Raju was suspicious and prevented the man from entering the church building, escorting him to a courtyard area where he detonated the bomb in his backpack. Raju was killed but saved many lives, said Wijesinghe, and leaves his wife and two children. His widow, who is 40, was orphaned as a child during the civil war, and her aunt died in the tsunami.

“Weakness and vulnerability are at the heart of the Christian faith,” wrote the Anglican Bishop of Truro, Philip Mounstephen, in a report commissioned by the British Foreign Secretary and issued this month. The report finds Christians are “the most widely targeted religious community” in the world, and that “acts of violence and other intimidation against Christians are becoming more widespread.”

But with the violence also comes resilience. Workers arrived at St. Anthony’s Church a week after the bombing, raised scaffolding, and began what will be a lengthy project to restore the church building.

The Sri Lanka church bombings are the fourth major attack since 2012 to target churches on Easter Sunday. In 2012 a suicide car bomber killed at least 38 worshippers in Kaduna, Nigeria. In 2016 a bomb packed with ball bearings exploded in a park in Lahore, Pakistan, where Christians gathered for an Easter service, killing 75 people and wounding hundreds. In 2017 a Palm Sunday attack on two Coptic churches in Egypt killed 45 people. Each attack was carried out by Islamic jihadist groups.

Each underscores the vulnerability Christians face, perhaps especially on the day they gather to celebrate resurrected life.

Mindy Belz

Mindy Belz

Mindy wrote WORLD Magazine's first cover story in 1986 and went on to serve as international editor, editor, and now senior editor. She has covered wars in Syria, Afganistan, Africa, and the Balkans, and she recounts some of her experiences in They Say We Are Infidels: On the Run from ISIS with Persecuted Christians in the Middle East. Mindy resides with her husband, Nat, in Asheville, N.C. Follow her on Twitter @mcbelz.