The mercury was touching 40°C (104°F) and the air so humid I felt like a wet towel seconds after stepping out of the car. Yet still hundreds gathered alongside me keeping vigil outside the wreckage of St Anthony’s Shrine in Colombo.
A ring of armed police and commandos stopped us getting close to the church but even from the cordon you could see – and just as vividly smell – the destruction wrought by a suicide bomber during Easter Mass the day before.
It’s not known exactly how many died in St Anthony’s, or St Sebastian’s, another Catholic church outside Colombo that was bombed, but it is thought to be well over 100. At least seven more explosions elsewhere on the islands took the total to around 250 lives lost.
The attacks were targeted at Christians and tourists, and carried out by a small Islamist faction mainly made up of homegrown radicals and returnees from ISIS’s so-called caliphate in Syria.
Tragically, the Sri Lankan government ignored at least three warnings from foreign intelligence agencies before the attacks, including one alert at 6am on Easter Sunday.
Fearing more attacks, Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith of Colombo ordered his flock to remain at home last Sunday, asking that they fulfil their obligation by watching a televised Mass he celebrated instead.
At St Anthony’s the attack took place just before 9am, as parishioners gathered and the church bell tolled to call the faithful to celebrate Christ’s Resurrection. Local residents and survivors told me that when the blast occurred, they saw the roof of St Anthony’s fly into the air, with the rubble coming back down to land on the pews and those in them.
Despite the danger, and the fact that more explosives were found days after Easter near the church, people have flocked to keep watch over St Anthony’s and its victims. Candles light up the nearby streets at night while hymns echo across the police barriers. Those who came were not just Christians: Muslims wishing to show that this kind of barbarity is not part of their faith came to pay their respects, as did Buddhists, who make up the majority of Sri Lanka’s population.
“We want to send a message to the Catholics that we are all Sri Lankans,” a local market trader named Ahamed told me. “This is not my religion. The men who did this deserve to burn in hell for what they have done.”
The scenes of destruction were so great that the Sri Lankan Navy had to hose down the entire church and the paint burnt by the blast had to be removed before reconstruction could begin.
After all the bodies and wreckage had been removed, one survivor surprised the clergy and emergency services. A statue of St Anthony was just feet from where the suicide blast struck, and, after the smoke cleared, it was found to be undamaged. All the statue had to show that there had been an attack were splashes of blood from murdered worshippers. Those, the diocese decided, would never be cleaned off.
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