Sri Lanka falls silent for Easter attack victims

Survivors of Sri Lanka's devastating Islamist suicide bombings held a private anniversary service Tuesday, April 21, as the nation paid somber tributes and the US vowed to push for justice.

The coronavirus pandemic forced the Roman Catholic leadership to call off elaborate services to honor the 279 people killed in the Easter Sunday attacks.

Instead, churches across the country rang their bells for 5 minutes.

The bells were followed by two minutes of silence from 8:45 am (0315 GMT) – the moment the bombers struck. Even television channels went silent during the tribute.

Sri Lanka's new President Gotabaya Rajapaksa vowed to prevent a repeat of the attack, the worst against civilians in the island country, which is recovering from a decades-old separatist war that ended in 2009.

At least 45 foreigners, including 5 US nationals, were among those killed while nearly 600 escaped with injuries.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Washington would push for justice.

"Just as the government of Sri Lanka works to hold those involved to account, the United States will not rest in its pursuit of justice for those who commit such atrocities," he said in a statement.

Some survivors attended a closed service at St. Sebastian's church just outside Colombo, which was hit by a bomb.

At St. Anthony's church in the capital, residents prayed outside and lit candles near a memorial for the 56 people who perished inside.

On April 21 last year, 7 followers of a local Muslim radical group went into 3 churches and 3 luxury hotels in Colombo as Easter services and morning buffets were being held and set off explosives.

The dead included 45 foreigners. Nearly 600 people survived with serious injuries.

"We honour especially all those, who lost their loved ones and those who were injured, for their spirit of magnanimity in not reacting in anger and hatred," said Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, Sri Lanka's Catholic leader in an anniversary message.

Demand for justice

Ranjith thanked minority Catholics for not retaliating against Muslims.

However, inter-communal riots did erupt 3 weeks after the attacks. One man was killed and hundreds of homes and vehicles were damaged.

The extremist National Thowheeth Jama'ath (NTJ), that had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State militant group, was held responsible for the audacious bombings.

Cardinal Ranjith said the church has "spiritually forgiven" the attackers, but added that their supporters must still be brought to justice.

Four NTJ leaders were killed in a gun battle 5 days after the bombings. Another 135 people linked to the group remain in custody.

'A sad day for us'

As Sri Lanka honoured the Easter Sunday victims, it was battling to contain the coronavirus pandemic, which has claimed 7 lives on the island.

The unveiling of special monuments for attack victims at two cemeteries was put off.

Plans to open a soup kitchen at the St. Anthony's were also scrapped due to social distancing rules.

A year after the attack, some survivors are still in hospital.

Saranya, 25, was 9 months pregnant when she attended Easter mass at St. Anthony's. Her husband Christopher was killed.

Their son was born the next day.

"My husband never saw his son," Saranya said. "My baby will be one year old on the 22nd, but how can we celebrate. It is a day after his father's death anniversary. It is a sad day for us."

T. Harshi's son was killed at St. Sebastian's. She lost her left eye and is confined to a wheelchair.

"With the grace of God and the determination of all those who are helping me, I hope to be able to walk again," she said in a video interview released by the church. – Rappler.com