Nightmare at Negombo: Sri Lanka's 'Little Rome' at the center of bombings was a haven of tolerance and secularism

Negombo's Angurukaramulla Temple is a well-known stop for Buddhist pilgrims. Its Grand Mosque is famed for its beauty. The Hindu god Rama is said to have been nearby before his great battle with the demon-king Ravana


                            Nightmare at Negombo: Sri Lanka's 'Little Rome' at the center of bombings was a haven of tolerance and secularism

By GEMUNU AMARASINGHE

NEGOMBO, Sri Lanka — The seaside Sri Lankan fishing town of Negombo has long been called "Little Rome," a reference to its abundance of churches and its place at the center of the country's small Catholic community.

But it was also known for its tolerance. Negombo's Angurukaramulla Temple is a well-known stop for Buddhist pilgrims. Its Grand Mosque is famed for its beauty. The Hindu god Rama is said to have been nearby before his great battle with the demon-king Ravana.

During Sri Lanka's long and bloody civil war, Negombo, about an hour north of the capital, Colombo, was largely spared the violence that raged elsewhere in the country.

"It is a safe haven for all," Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith said at a religious conference held in the town in 2016.

But all that changed Sunday when a bomb ripped through Negombo's St. Sebastian's Church, one of a half-dozen coordinated attacks on churches and high-end hotels that killed nearly 300 people. At least 110 were killed in the attack at St. Sebastian's, Ranjith said Monday.

Relatives weep near the coffin with the remains of 12-year Sneha Savindi, who was a victim of Easter Sunday bombing at St. Sebastian Church, Monday, April 22, 2019 in Negombo, Sri Lanka (AP)

"I was shocked when I saw the horrible devastation caused at the church," he said after visiting St. Sebastian's, pleading for tolerance and urging Christians not to seek revenge. Authorities have blamed the Sri Lankan Muslim group National Thowfeek Jamaath.

But in the hours after the blasts, even Ranjith called on officials to "mercilessly" punish those responsible for attacks, saying "only animals can behave like that."

Catholicism is everywhere in Negombo, a town of about 140,000 people with dozens of churches and perhaps hundreds of small roadside Catholic shrines. About 65% of Negombo is Roman Catholic, according to census data, though Catholics make up just 6% of the country's population.

Easter Sunday bombings of churches, luxury hotels and other sites was Sri Lanka's deadliest violence since a devastating civil war in the South Asian island nation ended a decade ago (AP)

Negombo's economy has long been dominated by fishing, but the tourism industry has grown quickly in recent years because of the town's beaches and its proximity to the country's international airport.

On Monday, many people came to pray in the garden outside the church, gathering at a statue of St. Sebastian, an early Christian martyr who was riddled with arrows during Roman persecutions.

Dead bodies of victims lie inside St. Sebastian's Church damaged in blast in Negombo, north of Colombo, Sri Lanka, Sunday, April 21, 2019 (AP)

Kumari Siriwardane had tears in her eyes as she spoke.

"I feel so sad about our village, our people, our religion," said Siriwardane, 58. "The doors of our houses are closed."

She struggled to find words to express her pain: "I feel very sad. Very very sad."