BATTICALOA (Reuters) – A dozen rifle-toting soldiers guarded a small community hall as day broke in the eastern Sri Lankan town of Batticaloa on Sunday morning.
Around 9 a.m. local time – roughly the same time a suicide bomber killed 29 of their fellow parishioners at the evangelical Zion Church two weeks ago – worshippers streamed silently into the hall.
Survivors of the attack on Easter Sunday ambled in on crutches or with an eye patch. Some clutched bibles. Many wiped away their tears.
Inside, several hundred worshippers knelt on the tile floor with their arms lifted toward the heavens, beseeching Jesus Christ to grant salvation.
“Come to our protection in this world where we are being hit by waves,” their voices sang out in Tamil
More than 250 people were killed and nearly 500 wounded in the attacks by Islamist militants on churches and hotels across the Indian Ocean island on April 21.
The suicide bombers were identified as members of Islamist militant groups based in Sri Lanka, but Islamic State claimed responsibility.
Although Islamic State gave no evidence to back up its claim, Sri Lanka President Maithripala Sirisena told Reuters in an interview on Saturday that he believed the group orchestrated the attacks that plunged Sri Lanka in a nightmare.
The government has warned that the militants were plotting more attacks, and police and military were conducting a security sweep of schools ahead of the staggered re-opening of state institutions on Monday.
“Save us from the Satans who are trying to destroy our nation,” the Christian worshippers in Batticaloa chanted.
Zion would need more repairs before the church could be used again. There were also no services at St Sebastian’s Church in Negambo, where at least 102 people perished.
But a mass was held behind closed doors at St. Anthony’s Church in Colombo, the third church bombed that day.
The suicide bomber who attacked the congregation in Zion Church had hailed from the neighboring town of Kattankudy just across a lagoon from Batticaloa.
Witnesses say Mohamed Nasar Mohamed Asath was close to a generator, magnifying the power of the blast when he activated the bomb in his backpack.
Fourteen children, many of whom were having breakfast in the church portico, were killed and several dozen worshippers in this largely low-income congregation were wounded, according to Zion church officials.
“Why does the Lord take us through this fire?” Reverend Roshan Mahesan said, his voice breaking, after about an hour of singing.
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Mahesan, who was traveling on Easter Sunday and missed the bombing, praised parishioner Ramesh Raju, who reportedly kept the bomber from entering the main church hall because he grew suspicious of him. Raju died in the blast.
Worshippers also prayed for the injured, like 30 year-old Arul Prashanth who helped others before collapsing from shrapnel that pierced his shoulder and back.
“Lord heal them,” worshippers sang in unison.
Reporting By Alexandra Ulmer and Omar Rajarathnam in BATTICOLOA, additional reporting by Shihar Aneez in COLOMBO; Editing by Shri Navaratnam and Simon Cameron-Moore