COLOMBO: Armed police and sniffer dogs guarded mosques in Sri Lanka as Muslims trickled to Friday prayers, with many staying away over fears of revenge attacks after the island’s Easter suicide blasts.
Some mosques cancelled prayers, and Sri Lanka’s Muslim affairs minister called on Muslims to pray at home instead, in solidarity with churches that have closed over security fears.
Other Muslims have expressed fears that they could be targeted by Islamist hardliners after the community’s religious leaders said the attackers would not be buried at mosques in the country.
Among mosques that did hold prayers on Friday in the capital Colombo, attendance was thin, with some worshippers saying they wanted to stand up to extremists.
“We are sending a message to extremists that we will not be scared or deterred,” said Reyyaz Salley, chairman of the Dawatagaha Jumma mosque.
“But the main reason we are here is that we want to say a special prayer for the victims of the church bombings,” he added.
At least 253 people died when attackers blew themselves up at three churches and three hotels Sunday in coordinated blasts that officials blame on local Islamist group National Thowheeth Jama’ath. The Islamic State group has claimed the attacks.
The bombings have been condemned by leaders of Sri Lanka’s Muslim minority but some in the community still fear a backlash from other religious groups.
Around two dozen police and other armed personnel guarded the Dawatagaha Jumma mosque, which has been threatened by hardline Islamists in the past because it contains a Sufi shrine, which extremists consider idolatrous.
Police prevented people from walking or parking vehicles directly outside after rumours circulating on social media about possible car bomb attacks.
Sniffer dogs stood guard as police checked bags and patted down worshippers and journalists before letting them inside.
“We are not scared. We have to die one day and it can happen anywhere,” a defiant Salley told AFP.
Many had been put off, however.
Salley said Friday prayers at the Dawatagaha Jumma mosque regularly attract up to 700 worshippers, but only around 100 turned up this week.
Prayers were also cut short from the usual one hour to just 15 minutes because of the security situation, with the mosque’s imam telling worshippers that the Prophet Mohammed would have condemned the attacks.
After prayers around two dozen worshippers held up banners condemning the attacks and pledging solidarity with the Christian community.
“Suicide has no place in Islam”, read one. “Calling all political and religious leaders to unite and keep our motherland intact”, said another.
“This mosque is open for your Mass,” read a third.
Some 330km away in Muslim-majority Kattankudy on Sri Lanka’s east coast, people turned out in greater numbers.
More than 1,000 men and boys attended prayers at the town’s main Mohiuddin Methaipali Jumma mosque.
“The attacks were carried out by a small group of people but some people are blaming the whole Sri Lankan Muslim community for this. It is not fair,” mosque official Mohammed Ramesh told AFP.
“The people who did this are not human beings. All Sri Lankans must unite against this: Buddhists, Christians, Hindus and Muslims.
“I have been praying five times a day for the Christian victims since the attacks happened,” he added.
Mohammed Farook Mohammed Shibly, 44, said he had been fasting from sunrise to sunset – more than 13 hours a day – in tribute to the victims.
“It was very shocking for us … especially because churches were targeted,” he said.
“We strongly condemn this barbaric act.”
“The All Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulama asked people to fast … to request Allah to make this country calm and peaceful again,” he said, referring to a group of Muslim leaders.
“I have been fasting for two days and I will continue fasting until the situation is normal. I can make this sacrifice.”