During Sri Lanka’s decades long civil war, St. Sebastian’s Church in Katuwapitiya had armed guards. But in recent years, there has been only CCTV, the threat of violence replaced by one of burglary.
On Easter Sunday, CCTV cameras appeared to capture the moment a man walked into the church to blow himself up, killing more than 100 people and wounding many more, in one of several coordinated suicide attacks around Sri Lanka.
The day after the bombings, the church and the tight-knit Catholic community in Katuwapitiya, a suburban area about an hour north of the capital, Colombo, were still reeling in shock.
Sanjeewa Appuhamy, an assistant priest at the church, was celebrating Mass when the blast happened.
“During our greatest feast, at the end of the Mass (there was) broken glass, dust, all of a sudden covering the church,” he told CNN. “People were shouting, weeping, we didn’t know what was happening.”
When the dust cleared, he said, the church looked like a disaster area.
That site was still being cleared Monday, with workers and police investigators carrying debris, blood-stained furniture and the shoes and clothes of the dead and wounded into the church courtyard.
Part of the church’s red tiled roof was severely damaged by the blast, and the area outside was littered with shards of stained glass.
“We have more than 100 people who were killed on the spot and so many others injured. We are still in an atmosphere of shock,” said J.D. Anthony Jayakody, auxiliary bishop of Colombo, who had come to Katuwapitiya to mourn with his colleagues and support the local community.
“I couldn’t sleep because of this. Innocent people who came to pray here … they sacrificed their life for God.”
Near the church, streets were lined with white ribbons in a sign of mourning. On one street, locals lined the road as a family who had lost a mother to the bombing carried her coffin, draped in green and topped with flowers, into a waiting van.
Minuri, a local woman who was outside the church when the explosion occurred, said everyone in the community knew someone who had died or been injured.
The overall mood in Katuwapitiya — and throughout much of Sri Lanka — was one of complete shock. While the country has a long history of conflict, it had been at peace for a decade, and even during the war between the government and the separatist Tamil Tigers, people were not typically targeted based on their religion.
“We never expected such a thing to happen, especially in a place of religious worship,” Bishop Anthony said. “This church is in a very rural area so we never expected this to happen here.”
Christianity is a minority religion in Sri Lanka, accounting for less than 10% of the total population. Katuwapitiya, and the wider Negombo area, is among a handful of communities in the country where Christians make up a majority.
The community has typically lived in peace with its Buddhist and Muslim neighbors, and locals said there was no warning whatsoever or any sign that they might be attacked.
While the community may have had no hint that hostility was growing toward Christians in Sri Lanka, the government appears to have had some idea. Officials apologized Monday for intelligence failures ahead of the attacks, including an apparent warning that churches would be targeted.
Now Christians in Sri Lanka, many of whom will be gathering in coming days to bury their dead, will have to face the fear that they continue to be targets, with investigations into who carried out the highly organized attacks still ongoing.
Speaking to CNN outside a church in Kochchikade, which was also targeted in Sunday’s attack, Sister Ramoshini Fernando, who wore a blue robe and silver crucifix, said she was highly conscious that she might now be a target.
Fernando’s father was injured in the attack at the church and hospitalized, but has since been stabilized. She was among many local nuns and other Christians visiting the church to examine the damage.
“I am not afraid to die,” she said, adding she has “dedicated her life to God.”
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