By Robin Gomes
With fears of new attacks on Christian places of worship still palpable in Sri Lanka, the Catholic Church in the country has decided to cancel Sunday Masses until further notice.
Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, Archbishop of Colombo, told journalists on Friday that church officials had seen a leaked security document describing Catholic churches and other denominations as a major target for attackers. He also asked the faithful to stay home for their own safety.
"We don't want repetitions," Card. Ranjith said.
Islamist suicide bombers on Easter Sunday blew themselves at two Catholic churches in Colombo and Negombo, and another Evangelical church in the eastern coastal city of Batticaloa wreaking carnage among the faithful during their most solemn feast of the year.
Three upscale hotels in the capital were also targeted. At least 250 have been killed in the 6 coordinated attacks on April 21.
Card. Ranjith’s comments come after the U.S. 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 Islamist group remain at large.
The Archbishop of Colombo also appealed for financial support to rebuild the lives of affected people and reconstruct the damaged churches targeted.
Police said that the terror group's leader, Mohamed Zahran, killed himself in a suicide bombing at the Shangri-La hotel, one of the 6 targets.
Police also said they had arrested the second-in-command of the group, called National Towheed Jamaat.
For the first time on Friday, church authorities of St. Anthony’s Shrine in the capital allowed in journalists since the Easter Sunday bombing.
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.
On Friday, authorities urged Muslims to pray at home rather than attend communal Friday prayers that are the most important religious service of the week. However, several mosques held services.
Revised death toll
Sri Lankan authorities have drastically revised down the number of people killed in the terror attacks. The Health Ministry said on Thursday that the death toll now stood at 253, down by more than 100 from the previous high of 359.
The ministry explained that since some of the bodies were severely damaged and destroyed, breaking into several parts, it was difficult to identify the full bodies. "Hence, counting an exact death toll is challenging," it said.