One week after Easter Sunday blasts, prayers held near iconic Colombo church

Seated on a foldable, blue chair outside his shop on Colombo’s Jampettah Street on Sunday morning, Mohamed Buhari was looking ahead, his gaze firmly fixed on the shrine less than 50 metres in front of him. “I was sitting right here last Sunday too, at the same time, when I suddenly heard a blast and saw flames erupt from there,” he said, pointing to the white Colonial building’s top.

The nearly-two-century-old St. Anthony’s shrine here was one of the churches attacked in the serial bombings last Sunday, which killed over 250 people across three churches and many hotels, mostly in and around Colombo, and in the eastern city of Batticaloa.

As dozens of worshippers gathered at the shrine for the special Easter service last Sunday, Mr. Buhari was sitting there, thinking of his wife who had passed away less than two weeks earlier.

“I just could not understand what was going on,” said the 69-year-old garment trader. He had left Thanjavur in India when he was 20, to work here in Kochchikade, as the locality is known. It became his home for life. “Hearing the sudden noise, residents rushed outside tried taking the injured people in three-wheelers, buses, or whatever vehicles we could find,” he recalled.

Televised Mass

With persisting security concerns, the Archbishop of Colombo cancelled all church services and instead held a Sunday Mass at his home that was televised live. However, dozens gathered outside St. Anthony’s shrine, singing hymns and lighting candles, exactly a week after the horrific attacks. Rows of flags in black and white were put up along the street, as if to register grief, protest and solidarity at once.

An old Catholic church, St. Anthony’s shrine, located in Colombo’s busiest market place, has for years been hugely popular among worshippers from different faiths, including Hindus and Muslims.

“April 21st was my little grandson’s birthday. Had he been here and not gone to India for his holidays, his parents would have certainly taken him to the church that day, like every other year. Thank god the child escaped this,” said Vijayalaksmi Thambirajah, who lives in a cramped alleyway adjacent to the shrine.

Many families like hers, though saivam, as Sri Lankan Hindus often identify themselves, are regulars at the church. “Every Tuesday, many of us go to the Shiva temple nearby and then come to the Anthony’s shrine.”

Even legends around the shrine, which celebrated its 175th anniversary in 2010, reflect diverse influences, including from India. When the Dutch arrived in Sri Lanka in the 17th century, Catholicism, which their predecessor coloniser — the Portuguese — spread, came under serious threat, according to popular narratives. A priest by name Fr. Anthonio, from Cochin, is believed to have arrived here at that time, disguised as a merchant. Helping locals, mainly the fisher community, he is said to have received wide support and drawn more people towards Catholicism. Those attached to the church believe that it was his Cochin-trader image that possibly inspired the locality’s name, Kochchikade.

Statue placed outside

Fr. Anthonio’s statue, usually placed inside the shrine, was kept outside on Sunday, at the entrance of the church. Scores of people stood facing the statue, their hands joined in prayer, tears rolling down their cheeks. The church they frequented was now across a row of rigid barricades and armed security personnel.

“It was Fr. Anthonio who dedicated this shrine to St. Anthony’s. His statue survived the blast and we wanted devotees to be assured,” said Fr. Jude Fernando, administrator of the church.

“It is still unbelievable… what do I even say,” he said, even as cleaners struggled to clear the debris and wash off blood stains inside. “I was right at the front when the blast occurred at the rear. I escaped so narrowly.”

Disbelief and helplessness were common refrains on the Sunday after. The usually bustling Pettah had quietened. Most shops were closed, and only a handful of people were out, buying essentials from roadside stalls.

For people of the area, the attacks were not only shocking, but also difficult to comprehend. People of all religions live here and have been trading with each other for years.

“We buy, we sell, we trade. And trade has no religion,” Mr. Buhari said, adding: “in any case what trade, what business now!” “We all know that all lives have to go one day. Death is not the issue. But no one has the right to take another human life in such a gruesome way. It is outrageous,” Mr. Buhari said.