COLOMBO: Churches across Sri Lanka suspended Sunday mass as security concerns remained high a week after suicide bombers killed over 250 in churches and hotels across the island nation.
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 over 100 people since the bombings in three churches and four hotels, most of which were in the capital Colombo.
The Archbishop of Colombo, Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, held a solemn special mass from a church adjacent to his house that was broadcast live across local television and radio.
"We cannot kill someone in the name of god... It is a great tragedy that happened," the archbishop said in his sermon, attended by President Maithripala Sirisena, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and former President Mahinda Rajapaksa.
"We extend our hand of friendship and fraternity to all our brothers and sisters of whatever class, society or religion that differentiates us."
After the sermon, the archbishop and the political leaders lit candles to commemorate the victims of the suicide bombings.
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.
The archbishop said earlier this week that he had seen an internal security document warning of further attacks on churches and said there would be no Catholic masses celebrated anywhere on the island on Sunday.
Muslims had been urged to pray at home on Friday after the State Intelligence Services warned of possible car bomb attacks, amid fears of retaliatory violence. Many have fled their homes amid bomb scares, lockdowns and security sweeps.
NEW ISLAMIC STATE CLAIM
Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the Easter Sunday bombings and on Saturday it issued a new claim for a gunbattle that erupted on the east coast on Friday during a raid by security forces on a safehouse.
It said three of its members clashed with Sri Lankan police for several hours before detonating their explosive vests during the gunbattle, the militant group's news agency Amaq said.
The group said 17 policemen were killed or injured in the attack. It did not give any evidence.
Sri Lanka's military said 15 people were killed during the raid including three wearing suicide vests and six children. Among the wounded were relatives of Mohamed Hashim Mohamed Zahran, the alleged mastermind of the suicide bombings.
On Saturday Sri Lanka's president outlawed two Islamist groups suspected to be behind the suicide bombings: the National Thawheedh Jamaath (NTJ) and Jamathei Millathu Ibrahim.
Police believe Zahran led either the NTJ or a splinter group. Less is known about Jamathei Millathu Ibrahim, whose members are also believed to have played a role in the bombings.
(Additional reporting by Ranga Sirilal; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani and Michael Perry) ((firstname.lastname@example.org; +603 2333 8036; Reuters Messaging: email@example.com; Twitter: @AnanthalakshmiA))