The anguished phone calls started arriving shortly after 1 a.m. on Easter Sunday morning.
Sri Lankan immigrants on Staten Island and Long Island spent the rest of the day anxiously waiting for news of family and friends after terrorists linked to the Islamic State group claimed responsibility for bombing three churches and three luxury hotels that claimed the lives of more than 250 people and injured more than 500.
The mourning process and memorial services began immediately, long before anyone knew whether the death toll included relatives or friends.
Father Chinthaka Perera, an associate pastor at St. Boniface Martyr parish in Sea Cliff, Long Island, managed to call his parents in Sri Lanka first: “They are safe, they are fine.”
The priest is from Colombo, the capital city, where St. Anthony’s Shrine was a bombing target. The other two houses of worship involved were St. Sebastian’s in Negombo and the evangelical Zion Church in Batticoloa. Catholics make up less than 8 percent of Sri Lanka’s population.
Staten Island resident Nihal Dissanayake, who works for the Metropolitan Transit Agency in New York and like Father Perera, is from Colombo, has been keeping the expatriate community connected through his Facebook page, Sri Lankan Catholics of New York & New Jersey.
Staten Island has the largest single expatriate population of Sri Lankans in the United States, numbering more than 5,000. The population swelled during the country’s civil war, which lasted 30 years, before ending in 2009.
“One of my friends living in Staten Island lost seven people in her sister’s family,” Dona Kiriella, a parishioner of St. Adalbert’s parish, told Catholic News Service. She said a friend in Brooklyn was hospitalized from shock because one of his nieces and a few best friends died.
Her brother also had a close call with tragedy. After their mother died last year, her brother stayed with her father, visiting his own family on alternate weekends. Easter Sunday was when he’d normally attend Sunday Mass, but he’d changed his mind. “There are so many stories,” Ms. Kiriella said.
Catholic leaders canceled Sunday Masses as Sri Lanka’s churches remained closed for a second week for fear of new terrorist attacks after the Easter Sunday suicide bombings that killed more than 250 people.
Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith of Colombo earlier had announced that Sunday Masses would be held May 5, but he canceled services after considering the latest security alert about possible attacks, ucanews.com reported.
Catholic schools have been closed until further notice. Although government schools reopened May 6, classrooms were nearly empty.
A police curfew was imposed in Negombo on the night of May 5 after a clash between ethnic Sinhalese people and Muslims.
Cardinal Ranjith celebrated a televised private Mass at the archbishop’s residence in Colombo May 5. He said the faithful could have chosen to stay home but they all came to the church because of their love of God.
“These members of our community who sacrificed their lives, they are with God because they have passed away due to their strong faith,” he said at the Mass.
Cardinal Ranjith refused to have a bulletproof vehicle provided by the government and chose to travel in an ordinary car.
“I don’t want a bulletproof vehicle, but I need security for the country,” he said in a media briefing.
Cardinal Ranjith also read a letter from Pope Francis dated April 24 at the end of the Mass. “With the followers of all religions, and men and women of goodwill everywhere, we express horror at this unspeakable offense against the holy name of God and I pray that hearts hardened by hatred may yield to His will for peace and reconciliation among all His children,” the pope wrote.
Cardinal Ranjith has criticized the government for its failure to act on intelligence reports warning of attacks on religious places.
Cardinal Charles Bo of Yangon, Myanmar, president of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences, said in a May 3 statement that the Church is deeply concerned by reports of revenge and the targeting of Muslim residents, refugees and asylum seekers in Sri Lanka.