Source: AP, By EMILY SCHMALL and JON GAMBRELL , April 26, 2019
COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) — Catholic churches in Sri Lanka canceled all Sunday Masses until further notice over concerns that they remain a top target of Islamic State-linked extremists, 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 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 group remain at large.
The group’s leader, Mohamed Zahran, killed himself in a suicide bombing at the Shangri-La hotel, one of six hotels and churches targeted in the attacks that killed at least 250 people on Sunday, police said Friday.
Police also said they had arrested the second-in-command of the group, called National Towheed Jamaat.
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 Islamic State 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 Islamic State group, and that the Sri Lankan government has the capability “to completely control” IS 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, who he said would soon step down, 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.
In a predominantly Muslim area of Colombo’s Maligawatta neighborhood, vegetable sellers laid their produce on the sidewalks near the mosques as women in long black chador shopped.
Imtiyas Ahamed, a leader at a mosque, said extremists like the Islamic State group were not faithful Muslims.
“In Islam, it is not said to kill yourself and kill others,” Ahamed said.
As he spoke, men came one at a time into the mosque to pray. They sat on their knees and bowed toward Mecca, the sweat from their brows falling on the mosque’s purple-and-gray carpet.
Abdullah Mohammed, 48, another Muslim from the neighborhood, stood outside.
“Everyone is nervous,” Mohammed said. “Not just the Muslims. Buddhists, Christians, Hindus — everybody’s nervous.”
Ahamed also urged people not to think that all of Sri Lanka’s Muslims were like the people who carried out Sunday’s attacks.
“After the New Zealand (mosque) attack, we don’t think every white Australian is an extremist,” he said.
Associated Press writers Bharatha Mallawarachi in Colombo, Sri Lanka, and Rod McGuirk in Canberra, Australia, contributed to this report.