Roman Catholic Church urges calm, alcohol ban after dozens of Muslim-owned shops, homes, vehicles attacked
Sri Lanka’s Roman Catholic Church appealed for calm and an alcohol ban on Monday after clashes between Christians and Muslims in a town scarred by the Easter suicide attacks.
Hundreds of security forces entered Negombo to impose a curfew after dozens of Muslim-owned shops, homes and vehicles were attacked. St. Sebastian’s church in the town 40 kilometers north of capital Colombo was one of three churches and three hotels hit by jihadist suicide bombers on April 21 killing 257 people.
“I appeal to all Catholic and Christian brothers and sisters not to hurt even a single Muslim person because they are our brothers, because they are part of our religious culture,” said Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, archbishop of Colombo. “Therefore please avoid hurting them and try to create a better spirit of understanding and good relations between all the communities of Sri Lanka,” he said in a video message to the country.
On Monday evening, the police said the situation was “totally under control.”
“There were no fresh incidents in the past 24 hours in and around Negombo,” police spokesman Ruwan Gunasekera said, adding that security forces had stepped up search operations in the area.
During a visit to Negombo where he held talks with clerics at a mosque, the cardinal called on the government to shut bars in the Catholic-dominated town known as “Little Rome,” said his spokesman Father Edmund Tilakaratne.
“As a temporary measure, the cardinal asked the government to order the ban on liquor sales in Negombo area,” Tilakaratne told AFP.
In another televised appeal, Ranjith appealed to Christians, Buddhists and Muslims to show restraint. Negombo suffered the highest death toll in the Easter Sunday attacks that were claimed by the Islamic State group. The bomb at St. Sebastian’s killed more than 100 worshippers.
Police said two arrests were made after the latest clashes and more suspects had been identified through CCTV footage. “At least three people were injured in the clashes,” a senior officer told AFP. “Although we have arrested only two suspects at the moment, many more have been identified and we will go after them.”
The officer said an alcohol-fueled dispute between two groups degenerated into violence.
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said in a statement the government would compensate those who lost property.
Unverified video circulating on social media showed mobs throwing stones at Muslim businesses, destroyed furniture inside homes, shattered windows and overturned vehicles. AFP was unable to immediately verify the footage.
The curfew was lifted on Monday morning and the authorities lifted a social media ban imposed overnight to prevent the spread of “rumors” that could have inflamed religious tensions.
Muslims make up around 10 percent of Buddhist-majority Sri Lanka’s 21 million population and Christians about 7.6 percent.
Meanwhile, public schools reopened on Monday for the first time since the Easter attacks, with heavily armed police and troops guarding schools. Attendance was poor, officials said. The country has been under a state of emergency since the Easter bombings, with security forces and police given sweeping powers to arrest and detain suspects.
Authorities said they were holding 73 people, including nine women, in connection with the April 21 bombings. The government has blamed the Easter bombings on a local jihadist organization, which had pledged allegiance to Islamic State.
Police said they had established the suicide bombers had about 140 million rupees ($800,000) in cash and a further $40 million assets, which will be confiscated under tough anti-terror laws.