The death toll in the Sri Lanka Easter bomb attacks would have been even higher, without the swift action of a church member who confronted a suicide bomber.
The man, whose name was Ramesh, challenged a backpacker who was trying to get into Zion Evangelical Church in Batticaloa. The stranger explained he had come to make a video of the church. Ramesh refused and took him outside.
Shortly afterwards, the bomb exploded outside the church, killing more than 20, including many Sunday school children. Ramesh was among them. Release contacts say the death toll would have been far higher but for his bravery.
According to Release International’s partner in Sri Lanka, 14 children under the age of 14 were among those killed at Zion Evangelical Church. Today the town is covered with posters of the Sunday School children who died in the blast.
Release contacts say Zion Church has been facing persecution for some time, usually at the hands of Buddhist, rather than Islamist militants.
Death toll revised downwards
The authorities have now reduced the death toll from the attacks to 253. Their explanation is the difficulties in identifying the dead in the aftermath of the blasts. More than 500 were also injured after suicide bombers struck at three churches and hotels on Easter Sunday.
Two of the targeted churches were Catholic, one Evangelical. Bombs were detonated at St Anthony’s Church, Kochchikade, St Sebastian’s Church in Katana, and Zion Church in Batticaloa.
The clock on the tower at St Anthony’s, remains frozen at the time of the blast – 8.45am Easter Sunday.
Media reports claim the hotels were targeted because they were holding Easter gatherings and breakfasts.
A government forensic analyst is reported as saying the explosives were detonated by suicide bombers. Other explosive devices have been found and defused, including one at Colombo airport.
The authorities claim the bombings were the work of Sri Lankan Islamist extremists, while Islamic State has said it carried them out. A state of emergency has been imposed.
Most of the casualties were Sri Lankan citizens. A fourth attack on a hotel was averted. There are warnings of further possible attacks.
Release partners are providing emergency assistance to the attack victims. The government has promised to repair and renovate churches damaged in the blasts.
The government is accusing the Islamist group, National Throwheed Jamath (NTJ), which emerged last year after being accused of damaging Buddhist statues.
Security forces say they have identified eight of the nine attackers and arrested 70 suspects. Some reports say a Syrian was among them. One of the suicide bombers is said to have studied in the UK.
The authorities warn that other bombers could still be at large and continue to search vehicles for explosives.
The Islamic State group has declared it was behind the attack, which ‘targeted nationals of the crusader alliance and Christians in Sri Lanka’.
A major row has broken out in Sri Lanka over claims that intelligence warnings of the pending attacks were ignored.
Security forces received intelligence from India as early as April 4, according to news reports. But the information was never passed on to the prime minister. Security for Easter services was lax.
The bombings were clearly planned and coordinated to maximise the devastation.
The government has pledged to investigate whether intelligence reports of the pending attacks were overlooked. There have been moves to sack senior figures in the police and defence ministries and the president has promised to overhaul state security.
Calls for prayer
Release International’s partner in Sri Lanka has spoken of ‘deep distress’ over the Easter church attacks. They have confirmed that all of their staff are safe and are working to help the victims.
The National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka (NCEASL) has called for Christians in their country to be calm, and for Christians elsewhere to pray.
In a statement, they quoted Romans 12:12 ‘Be patient in trouble and keep on praying.’
Release partner NCEASL has asked Christians around the world to ‘pray for those grieving the loss of loved ones and those injured in the attacks.’
Release CEO Paul Robinson has also called for prayer for Sri Lanka’s Christians :
‘We’re shocked and appalled and our prayers go out for our brothers and sisters in Sri Lanka. The scale of this horror takes our breath away. All-too-often Easter becomes the focus for violence against Christians.
‘Christians in many countries are on high alert for attacks timed to disrupt the most joyful service of the year – Easter Sunday. But terrorism can never overcome the central truth of the Gospel – Christ is risen. Please pray for our brothers and sisters in Sri Lanka and wherever Christians face violence around the world.’