UAE Sri Lankans 'in shock' after Easter church and hotel bombings

Residents scramble for news on the safety of loved ones following devastating Easter Sunday attack

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Sri Lankans working in the UAE say they are in "complete shock" after a series of bomb blasts hit their home country on Easter Sunday, one of the holiest days in the Christian calendar.

Three Christian churches, which would have been packed with Easter worshippers, three high-end hotels and two other sites were targeted in a devastating series of blasts around the country. Easter Sunday is one of the busiest and most significant events for the local Christian community.

UAE workers expressed horror, while scrambling for news on the safety of loved ones back home. For many, the incident brought back brutal memories of the civil war, which came to an end 10 years ago next month.

Nizreena Ismail, who is from Sri Lanka and has lived in Abu Dhabi since 2014, was in Colombo to visit her sick father. She said the capital’s hotels had been decorated with Easter bunnies and eggs to celebrate the Christian holiday, with the city busy with tourists.

She was with her father when she heard of the attack and rushed back to her husband’s Sri Lankan home to be with her children, aged six and seven, before checking on their Christian neighbours.

A relative of a Sri Lankan victim of an explosion at a church weeps outside a hospital in Batticaloa in eastern Sri Lanka on April 21, 2019. A series of eight devastating bomb blasts ripped through high-end hotels and churches holding Easter services in Sri Lanka on April 21, killing nearly 160 people, including dozens of foreigners. / AFP / LAKRUWAN WANNIARACHCHI

“Fortunately they were not at one of the churches attacked,” she said. “They said they went to church and half way through the Mass they stopped it and everyone was told to go home.

“Now I just feel extremely heartbroken for the injured and dead people on their Christian day.”

Ms Ismail, a Muslim, said there are widespread fears in Sri Lanka that the attacks could signal a return to the violence that hit the country during its long civil war.

There had already been a tense political situation in Sri Lanka, with anti-Muslim riots breaking out last year and presidential elections set to take place this year.

“It is a beautiful country and the tourist season was just starting," she said. "Everyone I know is now saying ‘not again’, we don’t want a return to the violence. Sri Lankans are just healing from the wounds of the war."

Ranil Desilva, head of the treasury with an oil and gas company in the UAE, said the Sri Lankan community in the UAE is devastated.

"It’s very frightening to see this happen and people are shocked. Our families back home are nervous about what is to come," he said.

With curfews now imposed and schools on a three-day holiday that could be extended, he asked his family to stock up on emergency supplies.

Mr Desilva said the Shangri-La, one of the hotels that was bombed, is a popular breakfast spot and that many hotels organise Easter breakfast buffets.

“It is a very sad situation — it has been 10 years since the last bomb blast," he said.

epa07518954 One of the blast victim is brought to a hospital in Colombo, Sri Lanka, 21 April 2019. According to the news reports at least 138 people killed and over 400 injured in a series of blasts during the Easter Sunday service at St Anthony's Church in Kochchikade, Shangri-La Hotel and Kingsbury Hotel with many more places.  EPA/M.A. PUSHPA KUMARA

Abu Dhabi resident Calistus Sunil Silva, 66, a banker from Kandana in Colombo province and an extraordinary Eucharistic minister at St Joseph's Cathedral in Mushrif, said that today is sad day or Christians everywhere.

“I consider those who were killed in Sri Lankan churches to be martyrs — they have laid down their life for their faith,” he said.

He also said that attacks on places of worship is tantamount to persecution.

“I don’t know who is responsible yet, but there is some evil being done. They are targeting innocent people.”

Mr Silva, whose family and friends at home are all accounted for and safe, urged Christians and those of all faiths to pray together.

“We have to forgive and forget the people who have done this. It’s very difficult, but hatred can only be overcome by pure love. [The bombings] are the work of hatred.”

Eight explosions ripped through the Catholic St Sebastian and St Anthony’s Shrine in Colombo, and an evangelical church in the eastern town of Batticaloa, which were all holding Easter services at the time.

Three Colombo hotels, the Shangri-La, Cinnamon Grand and the Kingsbury, were also bombed in what appears to have been a co-ordinated attack. Two more blasts in Dehiwala, south of Colombo, and Orugodawatta, to the north, were also confirmed by police.

Hundreds are thought to have been killed, including a number of foreign nationals, and more than 300 wounded, with the death toll almost certain to rise.

The UAE said that it stands with the government and people of Sri Lanka in the face of violence and sent condolences to the families of the victims.

Some residents said the news from home made it difficult to continue with everyday chores and to concentrate on work.

Mary — who did not want to give her real name — a Sri Lankan maid working in Jumeirah, Dubai, usually attends St Anthony’s when she is at home.

“I know the area well — there are a lot of Christians living there. It is near the port and it would have been a very busy place this morning," she said.

“My family lives a little outside of Colombo, but this church is one of the most popular in the country and my favourite place to worship."

For this to happen on Easter Sunday, I can't believe it. St Anthony's is a place of miracles

Mary's family said the religious festivals and street parties that had been planned for today have been cancelled, with police advising people in the area to stay indoors.

Rajanayagam Sandanam, 39, a security worker who also lives in Abu Dhabi, said he and his sister have been inundated with news from their home country.

“I am a Christian, I pray three times a day. For this to happen on Easter Sunday, I can’t believe it. St Anthony's is a place of miracles," Mr Sandanam said.

He said he will today pray for his country and for those who were injured to heal quickly.