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Sri Lanka’s gantlet of grief: Home after modest home turned into makeshift funeral parlors

Relatives lay flowers after the burial of three members of the same family who died Sunday in Negombo, Sri Lanka, amid a series of bombings. (Gemunu Amarasinghe/AP)

NEGOMBO, Sri Lanka — The long, narrow village road leading to St. Sebastian’s Roman Catholic Church became a gantlet of grief Monday.

Every few blocks, another ­concrete-walled house in the modest semirural Christian community, about 20 miles from the seaside capital of Colombo, had been turned into a funeral parlor. In dirt yards, friends and neighbors gathered under cloth tents and clusters of coconut palms, murmuring and embracing. 

Inside, the dead had been laid out in modest but respectful arrays, their clothes arranged to hide jagged shrapnel and blast wounds. In the worst cases, they were sealed from view in wooden coffins. Candles flickered in the gloom. Bouquets had been placed around the biers. 

Every family in Negombo seemed to have lost someone in the Easter Sunday bombings at churches and hotels that left more than 300 dead in several scattered locations. Everyone seemed to have a relative either dead or fighting for life in a hospital ward. St. Sebastian’s Church, the­ community anchor named for a saint of healing, was among the ­hardest-hit targets, with almost 150 worshipers killed at its Easter morning service.

In the middle of Monday afternoon, as ritual honors and remembrances for the dead continued, news flashed among the mourners in Negombo that yet another explosion had occurred, at a church in Colombo. (It later turned out to be a detonation by police.) People shook their heads and exchanged nervous looks.

Everyone seemed to be wondering the same thing: After almost a decade of peace and rebuilding since the 2009 settlement of a protracted and vicious civil war between ethnic Tamil guerrillas and the Sri Lankan armed forces, was terrorism again going to become part of their daily lives? 

They also wondered, after Sri Lanka’s small but stable Christian minority of about 8 percent had lived in relative peace with other religious groups for generations, whether these suicide attacks — tentatively linked by officials to a local Islamist militia — would trigger a larger outburst of communal suspicion and hate.

“Even during the civil war, we never had such violent attacks, especially in places of worship,” said the Rev. Indarajid Sunasekaran, a Catholic priest who was going from home to home in Negombo, praying for the dead. “We cannot let this change us. We must all work together to eradicate terrorism. We should learn from the past.”

“People are terribly scared,” said Russell Eardle, 42, a British Sri Lankan man among the mourners. “They are peaceful, and they don’t know who is to blame. But if another religion has done this, it could be the beginning of another war, which nobody wants.”

Coordinated explosions targeting churches and hotels in Sri Lanka killed at least 311 people and injured more than 500 on April 21. (Video: Joyce Lee, Drea Cornejo, JM Rieger/The Washington Post, Photo: Asanka Brendon Ratnayake/For The Washington Post/The Washington Post)

Several people expressed fears of Muslim extremism spreading in a country that has so far avoided it, even as armed Islamist extremists wreaked havoc in many other countries. In several conversations, Muslim shopkeepers said they too were horrified by the Easter attacks — and worried that their minority community could be blamed.

Christians have faced periodic discrimination in Sri Lanka, which is 70 percent Buddhist, but they are an old and well-established religious minority that includes people from both the Tamil and Sinhalese ethnic groups. They also have close ties to the large Christian populace in India, which has built many prominent educational institutions.

The Tamil Tigers — the separatist group that waged war against the Sri Lankan state for decades beginning in the 1980s — included some Christians, but Christians, by and large, were not targeted during the civil war.

Before Sunday, most of the tensions faced by the Christian community came from Sri Lanka’s Buddhist majority rather than from Muslims. Sunday services across the country have been ­occasionally disrupted, and some Christian groups have said they face intimidation from extremist Buddhist monks. The National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka reported 86 verifiable cases of violence, threats and discrimination last year.

Some mourners on Monday focused their anger on the government, saying it had failed to protect the public or warn of alleged tips that extremist groups might be planning attacks around Easter. On Monday, armed soldiers and police blanketed the capital region, and some stood guard outside funerals in Negombo and elsewhere. 

Christian community leaders said church officials had announced that no religious services should be held in the immediate future and that Christians should keep a low profile. With a nighttime curfew also in effect in the metropolitan area, people gathered in silence and sorrow, reflecting on their common losses.

In one home, the body of 13-year-old Kansheka Tawshi had been laid out like a sleeping princess, wearing a tiara of white flowers and a pale yellow confirmation gown with an embroidered bodice. The only hint of a violent death were her folded hands, wrapped in gauze and covered with gloves. 

A group of nuns approached the bier, chanted a psalm and crossed themselves. Women drew near, stifling sobs. The girl’s father, a disabled rickshaw driver named Rohn Fernando, slumped on a folding chair. Then suddenly he thumped his cane and unleashed a torrent of anguish.

“I don’t want war again,” he said. “People are all the same, in every religion; we all have the same red blood. We must live in peace.”

Emily Tamkin in Washington contributed to this report.

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