As Christians across America head to church on Easter Sunday, they’ll be hyper vigilant and praying for the lives lost in a massacre in Sri Lanka.
More than 200 were killed and hundreds injured after a series of blasts.
Near-simultaneous explosions hit three churches and three luxury hotels. At last count, officials said some 500 people were hospitalized from injuries.
There were two more explosions shortly after.
The government immediately implemented an island-wide curfew. On top of that, they shut down access to major social media sites and messaging services to prevent “misinformation and rumors”.
Seven suspects have been arrested, according to Defense Minister Ruwan Wijewardena. He also said the death toll included at least 27 foreign nationals.
Wijewardena blamed religious extremists for launching what he described as a terror attack.
The latest of eight blasts took place on the outskirts of Colombo. Police were conducting a search operation there when at least two more blasts went off. Police say the occupants of a safehouse set off the explosives to prevent being arrested.
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said he’s worried the attacks instability in the country and its economy and said they’ll “vest all necessary powers with the defense forces” to take action against those responsible for the attacks, “regardless of their stature.”
At least two of the blasts are suspected to have been carried out by suicide bombers. No group immediately claimed responsibility for the attacks.
On Twitter, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe of Sri Lanka urged the public not to spread misinformation.
I strongly condemn the cowardly attacks on our people today. I call upon all Sri Lankans during this tragic time to remain united and strong. Please avoid propagating unverified reports and speculation. The government is taking immediate steps to contain this situation.
— Ranil Wickremesinghe (@RW_UNP) April 21, 2019
The first explosion hit St. Anthony’s Shrine in Colombo. The church, along with the three hotels hit in the country’s capital, are regularly visited by foreign tourists.
A second church explosion hit St. Sebastian’s in Negomo, which is home to a Catholic majority in a town north of Colombo.
Police say more than 50 people were killed in that blast alone.
Father Edmond Tillekeratne was near St. Sebastian’s when the explosion hit. He’s the social communications director of the Archdiocese of Colombo.
“I was close by, so I ran there. I saw the aftermath with my own eyes,” he told NBC News.
“The rooftop is completely destroyed. The flesh of the people is on the walls and all over the place.”
The third church that was hit was in the eastern town of Batticaloa.
Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Union Commission, said that he had received news of the bombings “with horror and sadness.”
It was with horror and sadness that I heard of the bombings in #SriLanka costing the lives of so many people. I offer my heartfelt condolences to the families of the victims who had gathered to worship peacefully or come to visit this beautiful country. We stand ready to support.
— Jean-Claude Juncker (@JunckerEU) April 21, 2019
Pope Francis denounced the “cruel violence”. He said he’s praying for all those suffering, and added an appeal at the end of his traditional Easter Sunday blessing to address the massacre.
He spoke from the loggia of St. Peter’s Basilica.
“I want to express my loving closeness to the Christian community, targeted while they were gathered in prayer, and all the victims of such cruel violence,” he said.
“I entrust to the Lord all those who were tragically killed and pray for the injured and all those who are suffering as a result of this dramatic event.”
The U.S. embassy in Colombo tweeted a warning to Americans in Sri Lanka to “take shelter in place and exercise extreme caution.”
The first three hotels attacked were the Shangri-La Colombo, Kingsbury Hotel and Cinnamon Grand Colombo.
President Donald Trump tweeted his condolences and said the U.S. stands “ready to help!”
138 people have been killed in Sri Lanka, with more that 600 badly injured, in a terrorist attack on churches and hotels. The United States offers heartfelt condolences to the great people of Sri Lanka. We stand ready to help!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 21, 2019
The Archbishop of Colombo called for those who conducted the attacks to be punished “mercilessly.”
Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith said a heavy hand is needed. He called on Sri Lanka’s government to launch a “very impartial strong inquiry”. He said it’s necessary to punish those found responsible “mercilessly because only animals can behave like that.”
The blasts mark the first major attacks since Sri Lanka’s civil war ended ten years ago. The country battled for decades with Tamil separatists until 2009. During that period, bomb blasts in the capital were common.
Out of Sri Lanka’s total population of around 22 million, 70 percent are Buddhist, 12.6 percent Hindu, 9.7 percent Muslim, and 7.6 percent Christian, according to the country’s 2012 census.
A report came out last year from the National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka (NCEASL), which represents more than 200 churches and other Christian organizations. It found that in 2018, there were 86 verified incidents of discrimination, threats and violence against Christians. So far this year, they’ve recorded 26 such incidents.
The State Department, in its 2018 report on Sri Lanka’s human rights, said some Christian groups and churches reported they had been pressured to end worship activities. This, after authorities classified them as “unauthorized gatherings.”