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article imageCleansing of Colombo church fails to ease Catholic worries

By Ammu KANNAMPILLY (AFP)     Apr 27, 2019 in World

Dozens of troops used soap and water jets at the devastated Catholic church but could not clear the stench of death that makes many Sri Lankan faithful fearful of returning to services after the horrific Easter Sunday suicide bombings.

Nearly a week after the attacks on churches and hotels that left 253 dead, the navy contingent on Saturday put on a major operation with detergent and water at St Anthony's Shrine.

Dozens were killed at the 18th century church.

Reminders of the carnage unleashed by the jihadist bomber were everywhere -- bloodstains on the ceiling, walls pockmarked with shrapnel, and the hands of the church clock tower stuck at 8:45am, the moment the attacker blew himself up.

The jihadist attacks on three churches and three luxury hotels have sparked fears for the safety of ...
The jihadist attacks on three churches and three luxury hotels have sparked fears for the safety of the island's minority Christian community
LAKRUWAN WANNIARACHCHI, AFP

For K.A. Francis, who has been the cleaner at St Anthony's for 16 years, seeing the destruction in the church felt like a blow to the heart.

"The first time I went inside after the blast and saw the damage, on Tuesday morning, I felt this huge weight pressing down on my heart, so much pain -- like a physical ache," he told AFP.

The blast was so powerful it brought parts of the wooden roof down and ripped off tiles and plaster from columns near the entrance, exposing the red brick underneath and loosening electrical wires inside the walls.

- Painful return -

The 55-year-old Francis has been coming to church every day since the clean-up began, trying to assist the soldiers.

But nothing in his years spent sweeping and cleaning pews and carefully wiping fingerprints off the glass cases that protect the church's statues had prepared him for such stomach-churning conditions.

The blast at St. Anthony's Shrine ripped off tiles and plaster from columns near the entrance  ...
The blast at St. Anthony's Shrine ripped off tiles and plaster from columns near the entrance, exposing the red brick underneath and loosening electrical wires inside the walls
Jewel SAMAD, AFP

Even as he struggled to hold back tears, Francis said he was determined to help the church in any way possible so services could resume.

"My faith is even stronger after the attack," he said, adding that he believed his years of service had helped him survive an earlier heart attack.

"I will work for this church as long as I am able to work," he said.

- 'Prayer gives solace' -

The jihadist attacks on three churches and three luxury hotels have sparked fears for the safety of the island's minority Christian community.

Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, archbishop of Colombo, said Friday that services would not resume until security could be guaranteed. He was to hold a televised private address on Sunday instead and urged worshippers to pray at home.

Pravin Anthony, a Catholic living near the church, told AFP he planned to stay indoors and watch the archbishop's mass on Sunday.

"I don’t know what’s happening now," he said, adding that it was not just Christians who feel afraid. "All over the place, all people are unsafe."

For many Christians, the attacks have cast a grim shadow over their daily lives, cutting off access to their community and houses of worship and forcing them to practise their faith in silence and isolation.

"I used to go to this church every day before work. It made me happy," said John Livinus, whose home is a short walk from St Anthony's.

"Prayer gives me solace -- when I am in the church, I feel relaxed, but now I don't feel that way because I am afraid of bombs going off," the 64-year-old said.

"But I also know that I won't feel at ease again until I have returned to church."

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