Sri Lanka's Catholic leader has held a private memorial service live on TV to mark one week since militants killed 253 people in a series of suicide attacks. Churches across the island remain closed amid security fears.
Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, the archbishop of Colombo, condemned the Easter bombings and called for unity as he celebrated a private Mass in the Sri Lankan capital on Sunday.
The service was broadcast live on television and radio, after fears of further violence prompted churches to cancel all public Masses.
The island nation of 21 million remains on edge and under tight security seven days after extremists unleashed attacks on churches and luxury hotels that left more than 250 people dead.
'Insult to humanity'
"This is a time our hearts are tested by the great destruction that took place last Sunday," Cardinal Ranjith said from the small chapel at his Colombo residence.
"We pray that those who lost their lives that day have eternal life through the Lord … We pray that in this country there will be peace and coexistence and understanding each other without division," he said, and referred to the attacks as "an insult to humanity."
The special service was attended by President Maithripala Sirisena, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and opposition leader Mahinda Rajapaksa, who lit candles to honor the victims.
A heavily guarded vigil was also held outside St Anthony's Shrine in Colombo at 8:45 a.m. — the precise moment a suicide bomber detonated explosives at the church last week. Scores of people gathered outside the church to light candles and pray together.
Island on high alert
The US Embassy in Colombo warned believers against attending any service at a place of worship over the weekend, citing fears there could be further attacks.
Nearly 10,000 soldiers have been deployed across the country to guard prominent religious buildings and carry out searches. Authorities have also detained more than 100 people suspected of having links to Islamist militants.
"Islamic State" (IS) has claimed responsibility for the Easter Sunday carnage, but has not provided any evidence. The group also claims its members were involved in a fierce gunbattle that broke out on Friday when security forces raided a suspected Islamist safehouse. The military said 15 people — including six children — were killed at the property when three militants detonated explosive vests inside.
Police sources told Reuters news agency that the father and two brothers of the suspected ringleader behind the bombings, Zahran Hashim, were among the 15 killed in the shootout. Police also said a woman and a 4-year-old child found wounded after the gunfight had been identified as his wife and daughter. Hashim founded the National Towheed Jamaat (NTJ), the Islamist group the Sri Lankan government blames for the Easter suicide attacks.
On Sunday, police searched the main mosque of the NTJ. The raid took place in the eastern town of Kattankudy, just a day after President Sirisena outlawed the NTJ and another group, Jamathei Millathu Ibrahim, under new emergency laws.
Sri Lanka's population is predominantly Buddhist, with Christian, Muslim and Hindu minorities.
nm/aw (AFP, AP, Reuters)