By Alexandra Ulmer and Omar Rajarathnam
BATTICALOA (Reuters) – A dozen rifle-toting soldiers guarded a small community hall as day broke in the eastern Sri Lankan town of Batticaloa on Sunday morning.
Around 9 a.m. local time – roughly the same time a suicide bomber killed 29 of their fellow parishioners at the evangelical Zion Church two weeks ago – worshippers streamed silently into the hall.
Survivors of the attack on Easter Sunday ambled in on crutches or with an eye patch. Some clutched bibles. Many wiped away their tears.
Inside, several hundred worshippers knelt on the tile floor, addressing Jesus Christ in prayer.
“Come to our protection in this world where we are being hit by waves,” their voices sang out in Tamil.
More than 250 people were killed and nearly 500 wounded in the attacks by Islamist militants on churches and hotels across the Indian Ocean island on April 21.
The suicide bombers were identified as members of Islamist militant groups based in Sri Lanka, but Islamic State claimed responsibility.
Although Islamic State gave no evidence to back up its claim, Sri Lanka President Maithripala Sirisena told Reuters in an interview on Saturday that he believed the group orchestrated the attacks that plunged Sri Lanka in a nightmare.
The government has warned that the militants were plotting more attacks, and police and military were conducting a security sweep of schools ahead of the staggered re-opening of state institutions on Monday.
“Save us from the Satans who are trying to destroy our nation,” the Christian worshippers in Batticaloa chanted.
Zion would need more repairs before the church could be used again. There were also no services at St Sebastian’s Church in Negambo, where at least 102 people perished.
But a mass was held behind closed doors at St. Anthony’s Church in Colombo, the third church bombed that day.
The suicide bomber who attacked the congregation in Zion Church was from the neighbouring town of Kattankudy just across a lagoon from Batticaloa.
Witnesses say Mohamed Nasar Mohamed Asath had stood close to a generator when he detonated the bomb in his backpack, amplifying the force of the blast.
Fourteen children, many of whom were having breakfast in the church portico, were killed and several dozen worshippers in this largely low-income congregation were wounded, according to Zion church officials.
“Why does the Lord take us through this fire?” Reverend Roshan Mahesan said, his voice breaking, after about an hour of singing.
Mahesan, who was travelling on Easter Sunday and missed the bombing, praised parishioner Ramesh Raju, who reportedly kept the bomber from entering the main church hall because he grew suspicious of him. Raju died in the blast.
Worshippers also prayed for the injured, like 30-year-old Arul Prashanth who helped others before collapsing from his wounds. Shrapnel had pierced his shoulder and back.
Sumathi Karunakaran, a 52 year-old homemaker, received a volley of shrapnel on the upper left side of her body before she escaped by climbing over a wall. She attended service with a bandaged eye and an arm in a sling.
“I will keep on coming,” said Karunakaran, whose 22-year-old daughter Uma Shankari was still undergoing emergency care from injuries sustained in the blast.
“In fact, my husband is here for the first time. He came for our daughter,” she said as parishioners walked out of the three-hour service.
(Reporting By Alexandra Ulmer and Omar Rajarathnam in BATTICALOA, additional reporting by Shihar Aneez in COLOMBO; Editing by Shri Navaratnam, Simon Cameron-Moore and Raissa Kasolowsky)