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Sri Lankan Church Leaders: ‘Why Was This Not Prevented?’

Easter bombing

Following coordinated bombings that killed almost 300 people in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday, authorities are trying to determine who’s responsible and why warnings of terrorist activity weren’t heeded. The death toll in the Easter bombing attacks rose to 290 Monday, with more than 500 people injured.

Three churches were targeted near the capital city of Colombo, with bombs going off during Sunday services. (Two churches were Catholic, and one was evangelical.) Other blasts occurred at luxury hotels, just weeks after the island nation celebrated its main national festival. On Monday, a van parked near one of the bombed churches exploded, and 87 detonators were found near a bus depot.

Although most victims were Sri Lankan Christians, about two dozen were foreigners. A fifth-grader from Washington D.C. and a man from Denver are among the four American victims.

Sri Lanka, just south of India, has become a popular tourist destination recently. This is the country’s deadliest attack since a bloody civil war ended in 2009.

Of the 21.4 million people in Sri Lanka, about 70 percent are Buddhist, 12 percent Hindu, 9.7 percent Muslim and 7.4 percent Christian. Only a few incidents of harassment against Christians have been reported, and the country has no background of Muslim militants. But anti-Muslim bigotry has spread recently, reportedly sparked by Buddhist nationalists.

Political Dysfunction May Have Led to Intelligence Failures

Since the attacks, which officials say were carried out by seven suicide bombers, 24 people have been arrested. No group has claimed responsibility, but on Monday, Sri Lankan Health Minister Rajitha Senaratne pointed to the militant group National Thowfeek Jamaath (NTJ), of which little is known. “There was an international network without which these attacks could not have succeeded,” he said.

Senaratne also admitted Sri Lankan intelligence agencies had received warnings earlier this month about upcoming violence, including one mentioning NTJ by name. “We are very, very sorry as a government,” he said. “We have to apologize to the families and the institutions about this incident.”

Sri Lanka’s government has been in disarray since last fall, when the president dissolved the cabinet and tried unsuccessfully to depose the prime minister. During Sunday’s attacks, the president was out of the country. The prime minister, who hasn’t been allowed into Security Council meetings since October, says he wasn’t told about intelligence reports.

“Serious action needs to be taken as to why this warning was ignored,” tweeted Harin Fernando, the telecommunications minister. He said his father had heard rumors of attacks and warned him against attending large churches.

“We placed our hands on our heads when we came to know that these deaths could have been avoided,” says Colombo’s archbishop, Malcolm Ranjith. “Why this was not prevented?” The archbishop, who compared the bombers to animals, called Sunday “a very, very sad day for all of us.”

Children Asked: Are You Willing to Die for Christ?

A Sunday school teacher says half the students from one class were killed when Zion Church in Batticaloa exploded. According to a Facebook post from Israeli Hananya Naftali, teacher Caroline Mahendran said, “Today was an Easter Sunday school at the church and we asked the children how many of you willing to die for Christ? Everyone raised their hands. Minutes later, they came down to the main service and the blast happened. Half of the children died on the spot.”

Of the 28 casualties at Zion, 12 were children. “Whether you’re religious or not, this is horrific!” Naftali writes. “All peoples must be safe and enjoy freedom of worship.”

Zion’s pastor, Father Kumaran, says he confronted the bombing suspect before worship. The stranger, carrying a bag, appeared on the steps of the already full church. “I asked him who he was and his name,” Kumaran says. “He said he was a Muslim and wanted to visit the church.” Soon afterward, the pastor heard an explosion and saw blood everywhere.