Costa Rica to close non-essential businesses next week over COVID-19

SAN JOSE (Reuters) -Costa Rica will for the next week close non-essential businesses, including restaurants and bars, across the center of the country due to a sharp increase in new cases of COVID-19 and hospitalizations, the government said on Thursday.

From May 3-9, restaurants, bars, department stores, beauty salons, gyms and churches must close in 45 municipalities in central Costa Rica, where almost half the population lives and over two-thirds of new cases have been registered.

“We are in an unprecedented situation, and many people are going to die,” Health Minister Daniel Salas said after announcing 2,781 new daily infections, a record number. “There are already waiting lists to enter intensive care.”

The government is also imposing some restrictions on car travel inside the country, excepting car rentals.

Costa Rica, which remains open to international tourism, has so far reported almost 249,000 cases of COVID-19 and some 3,200 fatalities.

Some 10.5% of the population had been vaccinated as of Thursday, most of them over the age of 58, official data show.

(Reporting by Alvaro Murillo; Editing by Leslie Adler)

Trump warns governors: let places of worship open this weekend

By Jeff Mason

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump on Friday urged state governors to allow the reopening this weekend in the United States of places of worship which have been closed due to the coronavirus, warning that he will override governors who do not do so.

At a short appearance in the White House briefing room, Trump said he was declaring that places of worship – churches, synagogues and mosques – are providing essential services and thus should be opened as soon as possible.

Places of worship have been closed along as part of stay-at-home orders most states have tried to control the spread of the coronavirus. With the infection rate declining in many areas, there is pressure to begin reopening.

Trump issued a warning to governors who refuse his appeal but did not say under what authority he would act to force the reopening of religious facilities.

“If they don’t do it I will override the governors. In America we need more prayer, not less,” he said.

(Reporting Jeff Mason and Steve Holland, Editing by Franklin Paul and David Gregorio)

Easter season goes virtual as coronavirus locks out tradition

By Philip Pullella

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) – One Catholic priest in rural coastal Ireland delivered socially-distanced blessings from a moving vintage “popemobile”.

Another in Germany taped pictures of his parishioners to empty pews and televised his Mass.

With many churches closed or affected by coronavirus lockdown restrictions for the Easter season, Christians of various denominations around the world have come up with novel ways to keep the faith.

Pope Francis, leader of the world’s 1.3 billion Roman Catholics, has been, as he put it, “caged” in the Vatican. He has been encouraging his flock via scaled-down Holy Week services transmitted live on television and over the internet.

Most of them have been held in an empty St. Peter’s Basilica, which can hold up to 10,000 people, and an empty St. Peter’s Square, which has drawn more than 100,000 in past years.

Holy Week – which includes Palm Sunday, Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday – is the most solemn period in the Christian liturgical calendar.

“We are celebrating Good Friday, the commemoration of the death of Jesus, under very difficult circumstances,” Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the Vatican’s apostolic administrator in the Holy Land, said outside Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre, revered as the site of Jesus’ crucifixion, burial and resurrection.

Only a few clerics were allowed inside the church for what otherwise would have been a packed service.

Despite the grim reality of the coronavirus crisis, many pastors have not allowed it to dampen the hope inherent in the Easter message of life triumphing over death.

Since his parishioners couldn’t come to him, Irish priest Malachy Conlon geared up – literally – and went to them on Holy Thursday.

He drove an open-top “popemobile” once used by Pope John Paul around northeastern coastal villages, blessing from a safe distance people who gathered on the side of the road as he passed.

“There were huge crowds, it was a moving turnout,” he said after the six-hour drive.

“I’ve never received such a torrent of messages as I have this evening, people deeply appreciative and feeling connected to one another, despite all of the distancing.”

PICTURES PASTED ON EMPTY PEWS

On Palm Sunday in the German city of Achern, Father Joachim Giesler pasted pictures of his parishioners on empty pews and said Mass for a few people, including a television crew.

Kerstine Bohnert watched the broadcast with her family.

“Attending church service through TV or online streaming you do have the feeling that you are part of it, we see the priest like we do when we attend church, we see the pictures of others when the camera tilts and recognise other people and we are happy to take part,” she said.

It was such a hit with the homebound parishioners that Giesler will do it again on Easter Sunday.

The pandemic has cut across all Christian denominations, creating a sense of unity brought on by crisis.

For nearly 250 years in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, the Easter sunrise service of the Home Moravian church included about 300 musicians playing through the town.

This year, instead of the tradition dating back to 1772, a pastor and a handful of musicians from the Protestant denomination will hold a service broadcast on television and the internet.

“This was a difficult decision to make, and this Easter will

be different for all of us,” Church elder Reverend Chaz Snider wrote in a letter to the faithful.

“But we have faith in God who brings hope out of fear. So set your alarm, brew a cup of coffee, and join us on your back porch as we proclaim the resurrection of our Lord.”

(Reporting by Philip Pullella; Additional reporting by Rich McKay in Atlanta, Stephen Farrell in Jerusalem, Padraic Halpin in Dublin, and Ayhan Uyanik and Claire Watson in Germany; Editing by Frances Kerry)

Amid coronavirus, God goes online to reach worshippers

Reuters
By Umberto Bacchi

TBILISI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – As coronavirus closes churches, synagogues and mosques worldwide, religious leaders are taking faith online to ensure God’s word gets to the millions marooned by the pandemic.

Services are being streamed on Instagram, prayers posted by video link and timeless texts shared on cellphones to bring spiritual support to the hundreds of thousands of believers denied a place of worship.

“Because I am not physically close to you, it doesn’t mean I can’t be emotionally close to you,” said Miles McPherson, a senior pastor at the Rock Church in San Diego, California, which moved to online streaming on Sunday.

“It’s better when you are with somebody in a room … but the online services in one way give us opportunity to be with people more because we are with them in their pocket,” he said holding a mobile phone during an online video interview.

With almost 219,000 infections and more than 8,900 deaths so far, the epidemic has stunned the world and drawn comparisons with traumas such as World War Two and the 1918 Spanish flu.

In Italy – home to a large and devout Catholic population – priests have turned to technology to support some of the communities worst hit by the rapid viral spread.

When news broke on Feb. 23 that all Masses in and around the northern city of Milan were to be suspended, priest Fabio Zanin came up with a new way to stay in touch with his flock.

Armed with a mobile phone and help from young parishioners, he set up an Instagram account and started streaming daily functions held behind closed doors on social media.

“We though it would only be for a few days,” said Zanin, a Catholic priest from Cusano Milanino, a small town north of Italy’s financial capital.

“In the meantime, the whole word has been turned upside down,” the 28-year-old told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.

Zanin even asked parishioners to send in photos as they watched the Mass online, saying: “People need human contact”.

The highly contagious respiratory disease that originated in China has pushed governments on every continent to impose draconian lockdowns, hitting sport, shopping, travel and faith.

From Japan to the United States, many religious groups have suspended services and moved faith online, trying out new ways to stay close to their communities, as holy sites and public spaces shut, changing the face of many world cities.

HOLY WATER AND TOILET PAPER

Churches have historically been a place of sanctuary in times of crisis and closures have caused disarray.

Last week, the Pope’s vicar for the Rome archdiocese ordered churches in the Italian capital to shut their doors only to back peddle a day later, following complaints from some Catholics and a caution against “drastic measures” from the pontiff.

Besides broadcasting services, some have come up with novel initiatives to raise morale among those confined to home.

Jehovah’s Witnesses have stopped their custom of knocking on doors and setting up stall at busy crossroads but congregants were still meeting in small home groups in countries where it was permitted, a spokesman said.

In Britain, where the Chief Rabbi has urged synagogues to suspend all activities, a London-based congregation called on members not to “let social distancing become social isolation”.

“Whether you are in need of an extra loo (toilet) roll, some food dropped off or a listening ear to share your fears, let us be the planks for one another in the weeks ahead,” Rabbi Elana Dellal of the Liberal Jewish Synagogue wrote in an online post.

U.S. Buddhist magazine Tricycle has published online meditations to help ease people’s anxiety, while the St. James Episcopal Church in Newport Beach, California, urged parishioners to put their enforced down time to good use.

“Now is a good time to read Cradle to Cradle and watch those documentaries I asked you to watch!” Reverend Cindy Evans Voorhees wrote in an email newsletter.

In Tbilisi, Georgia, the Orthodox Church – criticised for still serving worshippers bread from a shared spoon – organised a motorcade to bless the city streets and ward off the virus.

On Tuesday, priests holding icons rode on pick-up trucks sprinkling people and pavements from tanks of holy water.

“This will be another good event by the Church to bring peace and calm to people,” said churchgoer Kote Svanadze.

(Reporting by Umberto Bacchi @UmbertoBacchi, Editing by Lyndsay Griffiths. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

Backstory: Finding some solace amid the bloodshed in Christchurch and Colombo

FILE PHOTO: A security officer stands guard outside St. Anthony's Shrine, days after a string of suicide bomb attacks on churches and luxury hotels across the island on Easter Sunday, in Colombo, Sri Lanka April 26, 2019. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha/File Photo

By Tom Lasseter

COLOMBO (Reuters) – The island nations of New Zealand and Sri Lanka are separated by some 6,600 miles (10,600 km) of ocean. But in just over a month’s time, each has seen mass killings that generated similar headlines.

In Christchurch, New Zealand, a man with his finger on the trigger of an AR-15 assault rifle stormed into mosques during Friday prayers on March 15. By the end of it, 51 people who had come to worship in two houses of God were dead.

In Colombo and other Sri Lankan cities, a group of nine suicide bombers struck in coordinated explosions on April 21. They strolled into St. Anthony’s Shrine in the capital, St. Sebastian’s Church in nearby Negombo and a church to the east of the country as the faithful sat in pews on Easter Sunday.

They also entered crowded restaurants in the Shangri-La and other hotels, as families tucked into breakfast buffets. The explosions that followed killed at least 253 people in total.

I flew into both cities in the aftermath of the massacres.

There was an obvious temptation to dwell on the symmetry of the tragedies.

The gunman in Christchurch had names written down the side of his rifle evoking past crusades by Christians against Muslims. Videos surfaced of the alleged ringleader of the Sri Lankan bombings, a radical Muslim preacher, calling for death to non-believers.

As I crisscrossed Sri Lanka in the back of a sport utility vehicle last week, though, I wondered about investing too much in the similarities, of seeing them as a part of an inevitable string of modern terror.

Instead, I thought about the different paths taken by two Muslim men we profiled – one a victim, one a suspected killer.

FILE PHOTO: Imam Ibrahim Abdelhalim of the Linwood Mosque poses for a picture at the door of his house in Christchurch, New Zealand March 16, 2019. REUTERS/Jorge Silva/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: Imam Ibrahim Abdelhalim of the Linwood Mosque poses for a picture at the door of his house in Christchurch, New Zealand March 16, 2019. REUTERS/Jorge Silva/File Photo

In Christchurch, I wrote about Ibrahim Abdelhalim. He moved to New Zealand in 1995. He’d enjoyed a relatively comfortable life in Cairo, but wanted a better future for his children.

Once there, the only job he could find was as a clerk at Work and Income, the government agency for employment services and financial assistance. No matter.

He also served as an imam, or spiritual leader, at a mosque.

When the gunman began shooting into the mosque where Abdelhalim was praying, the 67-year-old grandfather watched, helpless, as bullets pinned down his son on the floor before him. Abdelhalim’s wife was shot in the arm. It seemed possible he was about to witness the slaughter of his loved ones.

But after the violence, which his family survived, Abdelhalim threw himself into counseling the relatives of the dead. His heart was broken, but Abdelhalim decided to serve and to rebuild.

About a month later, I traveled with a colleague from the Singapore bureau, Shri Navaratnam, to the Sri Lankan town of Kattankudy. There we dug into the background of Mohamed Hashim Mohamed Zahran, the alleged leader of the Easter Sunday bombings.

He was expelled from his Islamic studies school for being too radical. Throughout his life, he was shunned by many of the Muslims around him.

Zahran went into hiding in 2017 after a fight in which his men confronted Sufi Muslims with swords. He disappeared again the next year after popping up in another town, where Buddha statues were vandalized.

FILE PHOTO: A police officer inspects the site of a gun battle between troops and suspected Islamist militants, on the east coast of Sri Lanka, in Kalmunai, April 28, 2019. REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: A police officer inspects the site of a gun battle between troops and suspected Islamist militants, on the east coast of Sri Lanka, in Kalmunai, April 28, 2019. REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte/File Photo

The variation in that pair of narratives is, to me, worth remembering. During my years of covering war and its aftermath in Iraq and then Afghanistan, I saw communities warped by the shock of repeated violence and the sometimes brutal forces of identity and clan-based power. But even on the bloodiest of days, there were hints of solace.

After our story about Zahran was published last Friday, there was another development.

His father and two brothers were killed during a gun battle when security forces stormed their safe house. They had recorded a video calling for jihad, or holy war.

I suppose you could dwell on that and the fact that others close to him had gone down the same road.

But this is what caught my eye: the cops raided the house based on a tip that armed strangers had moved into the community. Passing that information along could have put the sources at risk. Who had spoken up? Muslims at a local mosque.

(Additional reporting by Shri Navaratnam and Tom Westbrook; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)

U.S. religious centers buy more insurance after raft of shootings

FILE PHOTO: A member of the Chabad of Midtown prays during a service for members of the Poway San Diego Chabad Synagogue, in New York, U.S., April 29, 2019. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid/File Photo

By Suzanne Barlyn

(Reuters) – U.S. religious centers are buying special insurance to protect them from the financial consequences of an armed intruder opening fire in their buildings.

Many congregations have been reassessing coverage and buying separate “active assailant” policies as shootings at houses of worship, including churches, synagogues and mosques, become more common, religious leaders and insurance representatives said in interviews.

“You didn’t think about it until the last couple of years and now it’s something that you think about all the time,” said Brian McAuliffe, director of risk management for Willow Creek Community Church, whose six Illinois locations serve some 20,000 congregants.

Potential violence has become top-of-mind for many religious organizations, following a spate of shootings in recent years.

Last Saturday, a woman was fatally shot and three people injured at Chabad of Poway synagogue in suburban San Diego by a gunman identified as John Earnest, 19. He pleaded not guilty to the shootings on Tuesday.

The Poway attack, on the last day of Passover, came six months to the day after 11 worshippers were shot to death at a Pittsburgh synagogue in the deadliest attack ever on American Jewry.

Other shootings in recent years killed 26 people at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, in 2017; nine worshippers at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015; and six people at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin in 2012.

Violence also has come in other forms this year, such as the burning of three predominantly black churches in southern Louisiana between March 26 and April 4.

Willow Creek bought an active assailant policy two years ago, McAuliffe said. The added insurance covers expenses that are typically excluded from general liability coverage, including medical expenses, victim lawsuits, building repairs or replacement and media consultants.

VULNERABILITIES

Houses of worship face unique risks because of their mission to be welcoming, insurers and brokers said. The physical set-up of many worship centers also is a concern.

“You come in the back and everyone is facing the other way,” said Peter Persuitti, who heads the religious practice for insurance broker Arthur J. Gallagher & Co. “They are so vulnerable.”

Willow Creek’s coverage costs a “couple of thousand dollars” a year, which is a small fraction of its overall insurance budget, McAuliffe said.

Premiums for one policy backed by insurer AXA XL costs $1,200 per $1 million of coverage, said Paul Marshall, who heads the active shooter insurance program for the Ohio-based McGowan Companies, which underwrites the coverage.

Recent attacks spurred five synagogues and churches to buy the coverage this week, Marshall said.

The Archdiocese of Indianapolis bought active assailant coverage last year, covering 141 parishes and 75 schools, said Mike Witka, director of risk management.

Insurance companies also are ramping up educational programs for faith-based policyholders to help them manage the risk of violent intruders. For example, nearly 200 parishioners and staff from congregations insured through Church Mutual Insurance Co packed a church in Lenexa, Kansas, last month for a half-day seminar. They learned how to develop security plans and minimize bloodshed if someone opens fire.

The event is one of nine that Church Mutual planned for the year.

Church Mutual’s general liability policy includes “catastrophic violence” coverage of up to $50,000 per victim and $300,000 per violent incident.

Other measures could change how Americans have long envisioned their religious surroundings.

“We don’t really like to shut our doors because we want to be welcoming,” Witka said. “But we have to start thinking that once mass starts, the doors have to be locked and shut.”

(Reporting by Suzanne Barlyn; Editing by Lauren Tara LaCapra and Bill Trott)

Father, two brothers of suspected Sri Lanka bombings mastermind killed in gun battle

A police officer inspects the site of a gun battle between troops and suspected Islamist militants, on the east coast of Sri Lanka, in Kalmunai, April 28, 2019. REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte

By Alasdair Pal and Shri Navaratnam

KALMUNAI/COLOMBO (Reuters) – The father and two brothers of the suspected mastermind of Sri Lanka’s Easter Sunday bombings were killed when security forces stormed their safe house on the east coast two days ago, police and a relative said on Sunday.

Zainee Hashim, Rilwan Hashim and their father Mohamed Hashim, who appear in a video circulating on social media calling for all-out war against non-believers, were among at least 15 killed in a fierce gun battle with the military on the east coast on Friday.

Kamal Jayanathdhi, the officer in charge at Kalmunai police station on the east coast, confirmed the three men had died along with a child that appears in the video, and that the undated clip in which they discuss martyrdom, had been shot in the same house where the gun battle took place.

Two people who were inside the house, a woman and a seven-year-old girl believed to be relatives of the men, survived, he said, while a woman was killed in crossfire on a nearby street.

Niyaz Sharif, the brother-in-law of Zahran Hashim, the suspected ringleader of the wave of Easter Sunday bombings that killed over 250 people in churches and hotels across the island nation, told Reuters the video showed Zahran’s two brothers and father.

Sri Lanka has been on high alert since the attacks on Easter Sunday, with nearly 10,000 soldiers deployed across the island to carry out searches and hunt down members of two local Islamist groups believed to have carried out the attack.

Authorities have detained more than 100 people, including foreigners from Syria and Egypt since the April 21 bombings.

On Sunday police in the eastern town of Kattankudy raided a mosque founded by Zahran which doubled up as the headquarters of his group, the National Thawheedh Jamaath (NTJ).

HOLY WAR

In the video, Rilwan Hashim is seen calling for ‘jihad’ or holy war, while children cry in the background.

“We will destroy these non-believers to protect this land and therefore we need to do jihad,” Rilwan says in the video, sitting beside his brother and father.

“We need to teach a proper lesson for these non-believers who have been destroying Muslims.”

Rilwan, who has a damaged eye and badly disfigured hand in the video, had recently been injured while making a bomb, Jayanathdhi said.

On Sunday, when Reuters visited the house, police were sifting through the wreckage, taking fingerprints and video footage.

Watermelon rinds and a box of dates were still on the kitchen counter, while four pairs of children’s flip-flops were by the front door.

But in the main room, where the three men filmed the video, a huge crater had punched a hole in the concrete floor, while bloodstains covered the wall.

LOCAL VIGILANCE

Two men had moved into the three-room rented house in the Sainthamaruthu area of Kalmunai, days before the Easter Sunday attacks, police and locals said. After more people arrived, locals grew suspicious, said Mohammed Majid, the secretary of the Grand Masjid Sainthamaruthu, one of the town’s main mosques.

After evening prayers on Friday, a group of men from the local Hijra Mosque came to the house to question the occupants.

When one man brandished an assault rifle, the men fled, alerting police who arrived shortly afterward. One man was killed after running into the street with a gun to confront police, while a series of explosions came from the house, eyewitnesses said.

DANGER REMAINS

Authorities suspect there may be more suicide bombers on the loose. Defense authorities have so far focused their investigations on international links to two domestic groups they believe carried out the attacks, the National Thawheedh Jamaath and Jammiyathul Millathu Ibrahim.

At a nearby house where police seized more explosives and a flag of the Islamic State on Friday, locals said they feared more violence.

“People were coming and going but we didn’t know their names,” said Juneedha Hasanar, who runs a shop at the bottom of the street, yards from the house. “Now we are afraid.”

Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the Easter bombings, and on Sunday the group said three of its members clashed with Sri Lankan police for several hours in Friday’s gun battle on the east coast before detonating their explosive vests, the militant group’s news agency Amaq said.

The group said 17 policemen were killed or injured in the attack, but the Sri Lankan military has denied this. A police source told Reuters two policemen were slightly injured in the battle.

Police have said six children were among the other 12 people who died in the gun battle, and on Sunday recovered the partial remains of a child no more than a few months old.

(Reporting Shri Navaratnam, Shihar Aneez, Ranga Sirilal in COLOMBO and Alasdair Pal in KALMUNNAI; editing by Richard Pullin and Raissa Kasolowsky)

Sri Lankan police hunt 140 people after Easter bombings

Sri Lankan Special Task Force soldiers stand guard in front of a mosque as a muslim man walks past him during the Friday prayers at a mosque, five days after a string of suicide bomb attacks on Catholic churches and luxury hotels across the island on Easter Sunday, in Colombo, Sri Lanka April 26, 2019. REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte

By Sanjeev Miglani and Ranga Sirilal

COLOMBO (Reuters) – Sri Lankan police are trying to track down 140 people believed linked to Islamic State, which claimed responsibility for the Easter Sunday suicide bombings of churches and hotels that killed 253 people, President Maithripala Sirisena said on Friday.

Muslims in Sri Lanka were urged to pray at home and not after the State Intelligence Services warned of possible car bomb attacks, amid fears of retaliatory violence.

The U.S. Embassy in Sri Lanka also urged its citizens to avoid places of worship over the weekend after authorities reported there could be more attacks targeting religious centers.

Archbishop of Colombo Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith told reporters he had seen a leaked internal security document warning of further attacks on churches and there would be no Catholic masses this Sunday anywhere on the island.

The streets of Colombo were deserted on Friday evening, with many people leaving offices early amid tight security after the suicide bombing attacks on three churches and four hotels that also wounded about 500 people.

Nearly 10,000 soldiers were deployed across the Indian Ocean island state to carry out searches and provide security for religious centers, the military said on Friday.

The All Ceylon Jamiyathul Ullama, Sri Lanka’s main Islamic religious body, urged Muslims to conduct prayers at home in case “there is a need to protect family and properties”.

Police have detained at least 76 people, including foreigners from Syria and Egypt, in their investigations so far.

Islamic State provided no evidence to back its claim that it was behind the attacks. If true, it would be one of the worst attacks carried out by the group outside Iraq and Syria.

The extremist group released a video on Tuesday showing eight men, all but one with their faces covered, standing under a black Islamic State flag and declaring their loyalty to its leader, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi.

DEFENCE, POLICE CHIEFS QUIT

The Sri Lankan government said nine homegrown, well-educated suicide bombers carried out the attacks, eight of whom had been identified. One was a woman.

Sirisena told reporters on Friday some Sri Lankan youths had been involved with Islamic State since 2013. He said information uncovered so far suggested there were 140 people in Sri Lanka involved in Islamic State activities.

“Police are looking to arrest them,” Sirisena said.

Authorities have so far focused their investigations on international links to two domestic Islamist groups – National Thawheed Jama’ut and Jammiyathul Millathu Ibrahim – they believe carried out the attacks.

Government officials have acknowledged a major lapse in not widely sharing an intelligence warning from India before the attacks.

Sirisena said top defense and police chiefs had not shared information with him about the impending attacks. Defence Secretary Hemasiri Fernando resigned over the failure to prevent the attacks.

“The police chief said he will resign now,” Sirisena said.

He blamed Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s government for weakening the intelligence system by focusing on the prosecution of military officers over alleged war crimes during a decade-long civil war with Tamil separatists that ended in 2009.

Sirisena fired Wickremesinghe in October over political differences, only to reinstate him weeks later under pressure from the Supreme Court.

Opposing factions aligned to Wickremesinghe and Sirisena have often refused to communicate with each other and blame any setbacks on their opponents, government sources say.

Cardinal Ranjith said that the church had been kept in the dark about intelligence warning of attacks.

“We didn’t know anything. It came as a thunderbolt for us,” he said.

The Easter Sunday bombings shattered the relative calm that had existed in Buddhist-majority Sri Lanka since the civil war against mostly Hindu ethnic Tamil separatists ended.

Sri Lanka’s 22 million people include minority Christians, Muslims and Hindus. Until now, Christians had largely managed to avoid the worst of the island’s conflict and communal tensions.

Most of the victims were Sri Lankans, although authorities said at least 38 foreigners were also killed, many of them tourists sitting down to breakfast at top-end hotels when the bombers struck.

They included British, U.S., Australian, Turkish, Indian, Chinese, Danish, Dutch and Portuguese nationals. Britain warned its nationals on Thursday to avoid Sri Lanka unless it was absolutely necessary.

Fears of retaliatory sectarian violence have already caused Muslim communities to flee their homes amid bomb scares, lockdowns and security sweeps.

But at the Kollupitiya Jumma Masjid mosque, tucked away in a Colombo side street, hundreds attended a service they say was focused on a call for people of all religions to help return peace to Sri Lanka.

“It’s a very sad situation,” said 28-year-old sales worker Raees Ulhaq, as soldiers hurried on dawdling worshippers and sniffer dogs nosed their way through pot-holed lanes.

“We work with Christians, Buddhists, Hindus. It has been a threat for all of us because of what these few people have done to this beautiful country.”

 

(Reporting by Sanjeev Miglani and Joe Brock; Writing by Michael Perry; Editing by Paul Tait and Nick Macfie)

Exclusive: Sri Lanka warned of threat hours before suicide attacks – sources

People react during a mass burial of victims, two days after a string of suicide bomb attacks on churches and luxury hotels across the island on Easter Sunday, at a cemetery near St. Sebastian Church in Negombo, Sri Lanka April 23, 2019. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

By Shihar Aneez, Ranga Sirilal, Joe Brock and Sanjeev Miglani

COLOMBO (Reuters) – Sri Lankan intelligence officials were tipped off about an imminent attack by Islamist militants hours before a series of suicide bombings killed more than 300 people on Easter Sunday, three sources with direct knowledge of the matter said.

Three churches and four hotels were hit by suicide bombers on Sunday morning, killing 321 people and wounding 500, sending shockwaves through an island state that has been relatively peaceful since a civil war ended a decade ago.

Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attacks on Tuesday, without providing evidence of its involvement.

Indian intelligence officers contacted their Sri Lankan counterparts two hours before the first attack to warn of a specific threat on churches, one Sri Lankan defense source and an Indian government source said.

Another Sri Lankan defense source said a warning came “hours before” the first strike.

One of the Sri Lankan sources said a warning was also sent by the Indians on Saturday night. The Indian government source said similar messages had been given to Sri Lankan intelligence agents on April 4 and April 20.

Sri Lanka’s presidency and the Indian foreign ministry both did not respond to requests for comment.

Sri Lanka’s failure to effectively respond to a looming Islamist threat will fuel fears that a rift between Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and President Maithripala Sirisena is undermining national security.

The president fired Wickremesinghe last October over political differences, only to reinstate him weeks later under pressure from the Supreme Court.

Opposing factions aligned to Wickremesinghe and Sirisenahave often refuse to communicate with each other and blame any setbacks on their opponents, government sources say.

Sri Lankan police had been warned weeks ago about possible attacks by a little-known domestic Islamist group, according to an Indian intelligence report given to Sri Lankan state intelligence services, and seen by Reuters.

Sirisena, announcing plans on Tuesday to change the heads of the defense forces, said his office never received the Indian report.

Junior Defense Minister Ruwan Wijewardene, an ally of Wickremesinghe, told Reuters that he was also not privy to the Indian intelligence findings.

(Reporting by Shihar Aneez, Ranga Sirilal, Joe Brock and Sanjeev Miglani; Writing by Joe Brock; Editing by Alex Richardson)

Sri Lanka imposes emergency, says international network involved in attacks; 290 killed 500 wounded

Sri Lankan military stand guard inside a church after an explosion in Negombo, Sri Lanka April 21, 2019. REUTERS/Stringer

By Sanjeev Miglani

COLOMBO (Reuters) – Sri Lanka said on Monday it was invoking emergency powers in the aftermath of devastating bomb attacks on hotels and churches, blamed on militants with foreign links, in which 290 people were killed and nearly 500 wounded.

A family who lives near the church that was attacked yesterday, leave their house as the military try to defuse a suspected van before it exploded, in Colombo, Sri Lanka April 22, 2019. REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte

A family who lives near the church that was attacked yesterday, leave their house as the military try to defuse a suspected van before it exploded, in Colombo, Sri Lanka April 22, 2019. REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte

The emergency law, which gives police and the military extensive powers to detain and interrogate suspects without court orders, will go into effect at midnight on Monday, the president’s office said.

Colombo, the seaside capital of the Indian Ocean island, was jittery on Monday. Police said 87 bomb detonators were found at the city’s main bus station, while an explosive went off near a church where scores were killed on Sunday when bomb squad officials were trying to defuse it.

A night curfew will go into effect at 8 p.m., the government announced.

There was no claim of responsibility for the attack but suspicion was focusing on Islamist militants in the Buddhist-majority country.

Investigators said seven suicide bombers took part in the attacks while a government spokesman said an international network was involved.

Police had received a tip-off of a possible attack on churches by a little-known domestic Islamist group some 10 days ago, according to a document seen by Reuters.

Special Task Force Bomb Squad officers inspect the site of an exploded van near a church that was attacked yesterday in Colombo, Sri Lanka April 22, 2019. REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte

Special Task Force Bomb Squad officers inspect the site of an exploded van near a church that was attacked yesterday in Colombo, Sri Lanka April 22, 2019. REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte

The intelligence report, dated April 11 and seen by Reuters, said a foreign intelligence agency had warned authorities of possible attacks on churches by the leader of the group, the National Thawheed Jama’ut. It was not immediately clear what action, if any, was taken on the tip-off.

Police said 24 people had been arrested, all of whom were Sri Lankan, but they gave no more details.

International anti-terrorism experts said even if a local group had carried out the attacks, it was likely that al Qaeda or Islamic State were involved, given the level of sophistication.

Two of the suicide bombers blew themselves up at the luxury Shangri-La Hotel on Colombo’s seafront, said Ariyananda Welianga, a senior official at the government’s forensic division. The others targeted three churches and two other hotels.

A fourth hotel and a house in a suburb of the capital Colombo were also hit, but it was not immediately clear how those attacks were carried out.

“Still the investigations are going on,” Welianga said.

Friends and relatives pray as they mourn Shaini, 13, who died as bomb blasts ripped through churches and luxury hotels on Easter, in Negombo, Sri Lanka April 22, 2019. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

Friends and relatives pray as they mourn Shaini, 13, who died as bomb blasts ripped through churches and luxury hotels on Easter, in Negombo, Sri Lanka April 22, 2019. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

Most of the attacks came during Easter services and when hotel guests were sitting down for breakfast buffets.

“Guests who had come for breakfast were lying on the floor, blood all over,” an employee at Kingsbury Hotel told Reuters.

Cabinet spokesman Rajitha Senaratne said an international network was involved, but did not elaborate.

“We do not believe these ‘attacks’ were carried out by a group of people who were confined to this country,” Senaratne said. “There was an international network without which these attacks could not have succeeded.”

The president, Maithripala Sirisena, said in a statement the government would seek foreign assistance to track the overseas links.

Sri Lanka was at war for decades with ethnic minority Tamil separatists, most of them Hindu, but violence had largely ended since the government victory in the civil war, 10 years ago.

Sri Lanka’s 22 million people include minority Christians, Muslims and Hindus.

FOREIGN VICTIMS

Most of the dead and wounded were Sri Lankans although government officials said 32 foreigners were killed, including British, U.S., Australian, Turkish, Indian, Chinese, Danish, Dutch and Portuguese nationals.

Denmark’s richest man Anders Holch Povlsen and his wife lost three of their four children in the attacks, a spokesman for his fashion firm said.

A British mother and son at breakfast at the Shangri-La, British media reported, while five Indian political workers were killed at the same hotel, relatives told Indian media.

The hotel said several guests and three employees were killed.

The U.S. State Department said in a travel advisory “terrorist groups” were plotting possible attacks in Sri Lanka and targets could include tourist spots, transport hubs, shopping malls, hotels, places of worship and airports.

There were fears the attacks could spark communal violence, with police reporting late on Sunday there had been a petrol bomb attack on a mosque in the northwest and arson attacks on two shops owned by Muslims in the west.

BOMB FOUND NEAR AIRPORT

Traffic was uncharacteristically thin in normally bustling Colombo after an island-wide curfew was lifted earlier Monday.

Soldiers with automatic weapons stood guard outside major hotels and the World Trade Center in the business district, a Reuters witness said.

An Australian survivor, identified only as Sam, told Australia’s 3AW radio the hotel was a scene of “absolute carnage”.

He said he and a travel partner were having breakfast at the Shangri-La when two blasts went off. He said he had seen two men wearing backpacks seconds before the blasts.

“There were people screaming and dead bodies all around,” he said. “Kids crying, kids on the ground, I don’t know if they were dead or not, just crazy.”

There were similar scenes of carnage at two churches in or near Colombo, and a third church in the northeast town of Batticaloa, where worshippers had gathered. Pictures showed bodies on the ground and blood-spattered pews and statues.

Dozens were killed in a blast at the Gothic-style St Sebastian church in Katuwapitiya, north of Colombo. Police said they suspected it was a suicide attack.

Questions over why the intelligence report warning was not acted upon could feed into a feud between Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and the president.

Sirisena fired the premier last year and installed opposition strongman Mahinda Rajapaksa in his stead. Weeks later, he was forced to re-instate Wickremesinghe because of pressure from the Supreme Court but their relationship is still fraught as a presidential election nears.

(Reporting by Sanjeev Miglani; Additional reporting by Ranga Sirilal; Writing by Paul Tait and Raju Gopalakrishnan; Editing by Michael Perry, Robert Birsel)