(CNSNews.com) – The Catholic archbishop of Colombo met Wednesday with ambassadors of Islamic countries who expressed condolences over the deadly Easter Sunday suicide bombings and assured him, he said, that there was “no connection to Islam.”
The Islamic terrorist group ISIS claimed responsibility for eight bombings, whose targets included three churches and four hotels. The death toll has continued to rise, reaching 359 on Wednesday.
Sri Lankan police said eight suicide bombers have been identified. Deputy defense minister Ruwan Wijewardene said one was a woman and that most were well-educated and from well-to-do families. At least 58 people have been arrested as investigations continue.
A video released by ISIS’ media arm showed eight alleged perpetrators pledging allegiance to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. All are masked except one, identified as Muhammad Zahran, a radical Sri Lankan Muslim imam.
The ambassadors of more than a dozen Muslim countries – among them Turkey, Pakistan, Egypt, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Iran – called on the archbishop, Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith.
“We are very happy and thankful to the ambassadors of the Islamic countries for having coming here to express their solidarity with us,” Ranjith told local media after their meeting.
He said the ambassadors had given their assurance that “what has happened is not something political or religious; it is something that has been probably the result of some misguided people, and maybe there are other forces behind those misguided people, but they are not – no connection to Islam.”
Ranjith said he told the envoys that Sri Lanka’s Catholics appreciate the country’s Islamic community, and that the attacks should in no way “harm the harmony and peace that exists between us – Christians, Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims together.”
A rough religious breakdown in Sri Lanka is 70 percent Buddhist, 13 percent Hindu, ten percent Muslim and seven percent Christian. A costly civil war that ended a decade ago pitted the ethnic Sinhalese Buddhist majority against the mostly Hindu Tamil minority.
Two of the three churches bombed on Sunday were Catholic – St. Anthony’s Shrine in Colombo and St. Sebastian’s Church in Negombo, a town north of the capital. The third church, in Batticaloa on the island nation’s east coast, was Zion Church, an evangelical congregation.
According to police and eyewitness accounts the Batticaloa bomber likely intended to target a Catholic church but after finding that Mass was already over went to the nearby Zion church.
There, his suspicious behavior prompted pastors to prevent his entry, and he detonated his bomb outside, killing at least 27 people, including at least 13 children according to UNICEF. An estimated 500 worshippers were inside the church at the time.
Of all the locations bombed, the two Catholic churches accounted for the greatest loss of life.
Ranjith told reporters he was advising Catholic congregations not to hold festivals or processions, nor to continue with customary Sunday and weekday Masses unless there are proper procedures for checking people entering the church, and “unless they’re sure of the security situation.”
The archbishop also touched on early claims by Wijewardene that the Easter Sunday bombings were in retaliation for a mass shooting at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand last month, when a lone gunman killed 50 Muslim worshippers.
Ranjith said he did not know whether it was true that the attack was a response to the mosque killings, but added that “we people have nothing to do with Christchurch.”
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern told reporters Wednesday her government had no information or intelligence to suggest any link between the Sri Lanka bombings and Christchurch shootings.
In the several online communications posted by ISIS so far about the Sri Lanka bombings there has been no reference to the Christchurch attack.
A Sri Lankan business publication, reporting this week on Wijewardene’s claim of a Christchurch link, stated: “The New Zealand attacks were carried out by Christian white supremacists.”
In an online manifesto posted immediately before the mosque attack the Australian white supremacist now on trial for the mass killings portrayed himself as a fighter for “Europeans” whom he said were threatened by migration, and as an “eco-fascist” – but not as a Christian.
“Were/are you a Christian?” Brenton Tarrant wrote in the document, which was presented as a series of questions and answers. “That is complicated. When I know, I will tell you.”