Armed police and sniffer dogs guarded mosques in Sri Lanka as Muslims trickled to yesterday 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 leadership 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 of the few
worshippers who did show up 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 in the capital Colombo. “But the main reason we are here is because we want to say a special prayer for the victims of the church bombings,” he added.
At least 253 people died Sunday when attackers blew themselves up at three churches and three hotels 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 Dawatagaha Jumma Masjid regularly attracts up to 700 worshippers, but only around 100 turned up this week. Prayers were also cut short from the usual one hour to 15 minutes because of the security situation.
“I have come to pray here today because I pray here everyday,” 62-year-old Ahamed Riza told AFP before listening to the mosque"s Imam deliver a sermon saying the Prophet Mohammed would have condemned the attacks.
Some 330 kilometres (205 miles) 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.
Zahran Hashim"s sword-wielding zealotry fuelled fears in the sleepy east coast town of Kattankudy long before the cleric became Sri Lanka"s most wanted man over the horrific Easter Sunday suicide attacks.
The country"s president announced Friday that Hashim led and died in the attack on the Shangri-La hotel in Colombo — one of three hotels and three churches hit by bombers wearing explosive backpacks.
The round-faced preacher headed the extremist Muslim group blamed for the bombings which left more than 250 dead. He featured in a video released by the Islamic State group when it claimed responsibility.
Heavy security surrounded the main mosque in the Muslim-majority town of Kattankudy, where religious leaders say they sounded the alarm about Hashim years ago, beginning with his expulsion from a seminary during his teens.
“It was the first time a student has been expelled for being a hardliner,” said Mohammed Buhary Mohammed Fahim, a senior official at the Jamiathul Falah seminary who was a younger contemporary of Hashim"s at the school.
“When he arrived here at the age of 12, he was clearly very intelligent, very studious, and asked lots of questions. He was popular and sociable,” Fahim told AFP.
But things began to change as Hashim grew older, with Fahim blaming his exposure to books and CDs extolling a fundamentalist vision of Islam.
“He basically went off-course... We teach moderate Islam here but he was a hardliner.” When Hashim sought to influence his fellow students, parents complained to the seminary chiefs and the school asked him to leave. After a few years away he returned to Kattankudy, founded the National Thowheeth Jama"ath (NTJ) group, and worked with some former classmates to build a mosque where he could preach and share his rabble-rousing sermons.
“He was a good orator... he would pick and choose words from the Koran and twist and misuse them”, one official at a local mosque told AFP. He spoke on condition of anonymity, saying he was terrified of reprisals from Hashim"s followers.
“These are very violent people. If they know who I am, they can just shoot me in the street,” he said.
Hashim"s violent streak attracted police attention three years ago when he brandished a sword during clashes with members of another Muslim organisation, the official said. But just as the net seemed to be closing in, he went into hiding with some followers, operating what appeared to be an NTJ breakaway group that was linked to vandalism attacks on Buddhist statues in Sri Lanka in December.
According to Hilmy Ahamed, vice-president of the Muslim Council of Sri Lanka, Hashim shifted base to southern India. “All his videos have been uploaded from India. He uses boats of smugglers to travel back and forth from southern India,” he told AFP.
India warned Sri Lanka that suicide attacks were possible weeks before the bombers walked into three churches and three hotels on Easter Sunday.
India"s warning was based on videos and other Islamic State-influenced material seized from raids in southern Tamil Nadu state in 2018. At the largely deserted NTJ mosque in Kattankudy, adherents brushed off any suggestion of continuing ties with Hashim.
“Because of Zahran the mosque has got a bad name now. We have had no contact with him for two years... We have no connection to him, he is not a member of the NTJ,” said chief cleric Mohammed Yoousuf Mohammed Thoufeek.