With threats still looming, the event was guarded by some 300 soldiers.
A small village in Eastern Sri Lanka held what is likely the first public Mass since Catholic leaders ordered the closing of all churches after the devastating Easter attacks that took the lives of over 250 faithful. The event, which took place under extremely tight security, saw the ordination of a new priest.
The Washington Post reports that military checkpoints were set up outside the town of Thannamunai, where the Mass was held. Buses brought in the congregation, who lined up by gender and were patted down before being allowed entrance. Soldiers checked all the vehicles in the area for explosives.
Leader of the congregation Father Norton Johnson told Associated Press journalists who were present:
“People wanted to celebrate Mass, they wanted to participate in this, but they — even myself — were afraid. However, security personnel gave us good protection.”
The Mass had been planned over two weeks ago to mark the ordination with the participation of over 200 priests from the country, and the small parish of St. Joseph’s Catholic Church was expected to host thousands. That was until tragedy befell the nation of 21 million on Easter Sunday, when suicide bombers attacked three churches and three hotels across the country.
Soon after the attacks, the U.S. embassy in the Sri Lanka capital, Colombo, cautioned members of all faiths against attending services. Catholic leaders quickly ordered the closing of all churches. Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, the archbishop of Colombo, celebrated Mass the following Sunday in a televised broadcast from his own home.
Cardinal Ranjith ordered Masses to resume this weekend, but called for congregations to form “vigilance committees,” which would check IDs and examine bags of all those who sought entrance to the service.
The ordination Mass, however, had already been planned, and the invitations had already been sent. Father Johnson and other Catholic leaders worked with the Sri Lankan armed forces to hold a high-security Mass for the community. It is believed to be the first public Mass since the Easter bombings.
What was expected to be a crowd of over 3,000 turned into just a few hundred, and the 200 priests who were originally intending to attend dwindled to about 80. But still, the ordination commenced on Tuesday morning.
The Washington Post reports the security personnel were tense in their duties. Thannamunai is wedged between Muslim neighborhoods and it is believed there are militants who remain at large. Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who had been silent for five years, released a video on Monday praising the actions of the Sri Lanka attackers. It is feared that this encouragement may lead to another attack.
During the service, several heads were turned when a Muslim woman rode past the service on a motorbike, at which time Father Johnson made a point of remarking that the Easter attacks were committed by “only a few terrorists.”
“In every religion, every race, there are extremists. They do certain things. But we can’t blame one community for these problems,” the priest said. “The Muslim community, they are afraid, and they are sorry about this incident. And what I can say is we are with them.”
The ordination was completed without incident. The perimeter was surrounded by some 300 armed soldiers and an additional 60 police. While the sentinels kept their vigilant watch, the congregation sang hymns and celebrated Mass, receiving more than just the Blessed Sacrament, as they were given hope of a nonviolent future.
“We are all the same,” said Father Johnson. “All of our blood is red.”