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Sri Lanka's Christians afraid to attend church after blasts

Monday, April 22, 2019

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COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AFP) — Members of Sri Lanka's Christian minority have been left afraid to go to church after deadly attacks that hit Easter services, killing nearly 300 and stoking fears of communal violence.

"Some people might be afraid to go to church now. At this moment I have no idea what to say," Father Lour Fernando told AFP by St Sebastian's in Negombo, one of three churches targeted Sunday.

"We have to remain strong and keep going to church and keep praying. We can't stop."

Ranjan Christopher Fernard, a 55-year-old taxi driver from Negombo, said he was nervous about attending church after the attacks, which killed his friend's 11-year-old son.

"Tonight we (my family) will all go to church to pray for the victims," he said.

"Of course I feel afraid... but we have to go to church, we have to pray for the injured to get well soon."

The suicide bomb attacks were the worst atrocity in Sri Lanka since the country's 37-year conflict with Tamil rebels ended a decade ago.

Sri Lanka's Christians, who make up just seven per cent of the 21-million population, had been largely spared the worst of the country's violence, including recent tensions between right-wing Buddhists and Muslims.

"We never thought we would ever be targeted. We never thought we would ever need protection," said a priest in the grounds of St Sebastian.

But others said there had been warnings, and documents seen by AFP showed the country's police chief had issued an alert on April 11 that warned a radical Muslim group planned to hit "prominent churches."

The government said Monday it believed the National Thowheeth Jama'ath was behind the attacks. - 'Living in fear' -

A pastor at People's Church in Colombo, who declined to be named, said police had told churches last week that they should brace for possible "incidents" and stay vigilant.

"We increased security at our church last week. We have also been checking vehicles coming into the church premises," he said.

"Although there was a generic warning to stay vigilant, some churches adopted a lax attitude because there were no details offered, like a possible timeline," he added.

"I feel more deaths could have been prevented if we were more alert."

For some in the shaken Christian community, the attacks also raise the spectre of more widespread communal violence.

"I feel this carnage on Easter Sunday is an attempt to drive a wedge between communities," said Lakshmi Shanmugam, a 77-year-old Christian married to a Buddhist.

"We haven't learnt anything from the nearly three-decade long conflict... our leaders didn't focus on reconciliation," she added.

"Despite all the talk on protecting ethnic and religious minorities, we are still living in fear."

Pushpa Francis, a Catholic retired sports teacher, said she feared the situation would "degenerate into a tit-for-tat".

"We don't want our community to be torn apart."

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