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Sri Lankan Government Pledges to Rebuild 175-Year-Old Church Damaged in Deadly Easter Bombings

St. Anthony’s Shrine has long served as a symbol of unity and religious tolerance

St. Anthony's Shrine photographed the day after multiple deadly explosions targeted churches and hotels across Sri Lanka. (Photo by Chamila Karunarathne/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
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At 8:45 a.m., an explosion interrupted Easter morning mass at St. Anthony’s Shrine, a 19th-century Roman Catholic church in the Kochchikade suburb of Sri Lanka’s capital city, Colombo. The church was one of eight locations targeted in a series of coordinated suicide bombing attacks that killed at least 359 people and left hundreds more injured.

According to BBC News’ Ayeshea Perera, in the wake of tragedy, the church was forced to close its doors to visitors for the first time in its 175-year history. But St. Anthony's won’t stay shut permanently. Already, Sajith Premadasa, Sri Lanka’s minister of housing, construction and cultural affairs, has announced plans to rebuild the house of worship.

The Art Newspaper’s Gareth Harris reports that reconstruction, overseen by Archbishop of Colombo Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, will begin after security forces complete their investigation. It remains unclear how much the overall rebuilding project will cost, as well as how long it will take.

In a statement, the Knights of Columbus, a United States-based Catholic organization, offered $100,000 to Cardinal Ranjith for “his use in the rebuilding and repair of his Christian community.” Separately, the Sri Lankan Daily Mirror reports that Rosy Senanayake, mayor of Colombo, pledged 25 million rupees, or roughly $143,000 USD, of municipality funding toward restoring the church to its “former glory.”

A 2010 feature in the Sunday Times offers a detailed account of St. Anthony’s significance in the Colombo community. As reporter Hiranthi Fernando explains, Catholicism was banned in Portuguese-held Sri Lanka during the 18th-century Dutch colonial period. Still, the shrine's founder, Father Antonio, and others of his faith continued to practice their religion in secret. When Dutch soldiers finally came to arrest the priest, he sought cover among fishermen who promised to protect him if he could stop the threat of sea erosion. According to legend, Antonio prayed that the waves would recede, and the fisherman watched in awe as the water, indeed, lowered before their eyes. After word of the miracle got back to the Dutch governor, he realized arresting the priest “would have dire consequence[s].” Rather than throw the priest in jail, the governor bequeathed Antonio land where he built a house of worship.

Prabath Buddhika, a local Buddhist who has attended services at St. Anthony’s since childhood, tells BBC News’ Perera that the church’s storied history makes it a symbol of unity and tolerance in a country with a long history of religious unrest. “This is no ordinary church,” Buddhika says. “Whoever did this didn't know what they were messing with—they cannot simply get away with something like this.”

The investigation into the deadly Easter Sunday bombings remains ongoing. According to The New York Times, the government has blamed the militant National Thowheeth Jama’ath group. On Tuesday, the Islamic State claimed its “fighters” were responsible for the attacks, but as the Times reports, the “extent to which the Islamic State or other international terrorist networks may have helped with the attacks” remains unclear.

According to CBS News, the other churches targeted in the attack were St. Sebastian’s, a Catholic church in Negombo, and Zion, a church in the eastern coastal city of Batticaloa. Four hotels in Colombo were also attacked, in addition to an explosion at a housing complex in Dematagoda.

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