Colombo: Catholic churches in Sri Lanka cancelled all Sunday Masses until further notice over concerns that they remain a top target of Daesh-linked militants, even as authorities said Friday a suspected local leader blew himself up in the Easter suicide bombings.
Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith told journalists that church officials had seen a leaked security document describing Catholic churches and other denominations as a major target 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.
The cardinal’s comments come after the US 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.
For the first time Friday, Catholic priests allowed journalists inside one of the bombed churches, St. Anthony’s Shrine in Colombo.
Broken glass littered the sanctuary’s broken pews and blood stained the floor.
Shoes left behind by panicked worshippers remained in the darkened church. 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.”
Across Colombo, there was a visible increase of security 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.
Australia’s prime minister said Friday that it had been confirmed that the Sri Lanka attackers were supported by the Daesh 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 in Colombo that about 140 people in the island nation had been identified as having links to the Daesh group, and that the Sri Lankan government has the capability “to completely control” the group’s 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 assailants’ 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 for a failure to share weeks of information from international intelligence agencies about the plot ahead of time.
Late on Thursday, Sri Lanka’s health ministry drastically revised down its estimated death toll from the coordinated attacks. A statement said “approximately” 253 people had died, nearly one-third lower than the police’s earlier estimated death toll of 359.
The discrepancy was not immediately explained, but it fit a pattern of claims and counterclaims by Sri Lankan officials that have muddled the investigation.