At a Sri Lankan Catholic church in Scarborough on Sunday morning, worshipers gathered not only to mark Easter but also to pray and grieve for their friends half a world away.
Toronto’s Sri Lankan community is now in mourning after 290 people died in a series of bombing attacks at churches and hotels in Sri Lanka on Sunday. The attacks mark the first major incident since the country’s civil war ended in March 2009.
Hundreds more were also injured in what the country’s defence minister said were terrorist acts carried out by religious extremists.
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“We never thought that churches would be attacked like this,” said Vincent Sahayanathan, a pastor at the Toronto Harvest Ministry Church. “It is very sad.”
Sahayanathan said he is originally from the city of Batticaloa in eastern Sri Lanka, where a local church was bombed on Sunday.
“I had grown up in that city, and the church that was attacked this morning, it was my friend’s church,” Sahayanathan said. “I preached there many times, and they are very lovely people … The pastors are very friendly with everybody.”
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Sahayanathan said the church is the largest one in the city and regularly attracts large crowds.
He received a call shortly after the attack happened Sunday and was in complete shock. He has since been in touch with friends in the area.
“We didn’t get clear answers yet there but we know that many people died,” he said.
Sahayanathan suspects many of his friends are also among the dead.
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“We are here to pray for Sri Lanka in this moment,” he said in the lead-up to his church’s Easter mass, which saw dozens in attendance on Sunday morning.
Reehanya Selvmayooran, whose family is originally from the Sri Lankan region of Jaffna, was at the church on Sunday morning to pray for those who lost their lives. Jaffna was not in the vicinity of Sunday’s attack.
“I am so sorry for all our people. We’ve just come out of the civil war then again this is happening that, for the Christian community, today is Easter day. All the people go to church. This incident is a really, really bad thing for us at this moment,” she told Global News’ Jeff Semple.
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“It’s unimaginable at this time. It should be an Easter celebration here, but we are all praying at this moment to all the people who lost their lives. It’s very sad news today,” she added.
Zipporah Michael, whose family is originally from the Sri Lankan region of Colombo, was also in attendance Sunday morning. Colombo was one of the regions affected by the bombings.
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She told Global News that she and her family received word of the attack Saturday night and haven’t been in touch with their relatives in Colombo.
“We could not reach anybody. We can pray now to comfort their families there. I don’t know what to say,” said Michael.
Toronto Cardinal Thomas Collins also took a moment to express his sadness over the tragedy.
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“This day is a day of great tragedy, as our brothers and sisters in Christ have been killed, murdered on this most holy day, as they came together for the worship of the Lord,” he told reporters.
A spokesman for an organization representing Sri Lankan-Canadians says he has “no answers” in the wake of co-ordinated bomb attacks in his homeland that killed at least 207 people and injured 450 more.
Riyaz Rauf, vice-president of the Canada Sri Lankan Association of Toronto, says he found out about the bombings via text messages from friends just after midnight.
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Rauf moved to Canada nine years ago. He has no explanation for the reasons behind the violence, but believes his homeland will push onward.
“There’s absolutely no reason – no cause, nothing – for something like this to be happening in this beautiful country,” he said.
However, Rauf added: “Sri Lanka as a nation has come through the worst period that it could ever come out of. We had a civil war for 25 years. We are a bunch of resilient people who can overcome adversity.”
The federal government warned Canadians in Sri Lanka to limit their movements and obey local authorities, saying the situation in the country remains “volatile” and more attacks are possible. It added that the High Commission of Canada to Sri Lanka in the capital Colombo would be closed on Monday due to the security situation.
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Global Affairs Canada said in an email Sunday afternoon that there are no reports of any Canadian citizens being affected by the blasts, whose targets included hotels and a church frequented by tourists.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi condemned the attacks and told voters that they needed to elect him to a second term as only he can beat the “terrorists” threatening India.
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Dutch Foreign Minister Stef Blok also said he was horrified by the Easter Sunday attacks.
“Our thoughts are with the victims, including one Dutch national, at this moment,” he said.
Pope Francis condemned the attack on Sunday while celebrating Easter mass.
“I learned with sadness and pain of the news of the grave attacks, that precisely today, Easter, brought mourning and pain to churches and other places where people were gathered in Sri Lanka,” Pope Francis told tens of thousands of people in St. Peter’s Square to hear his Easter Sunday “Urbi et Orbi” (“To the City and the World”) message.
WATCH: Toronto cardinal expresses grief towards those killed in Sri Lanka terror attacks
Seven people have been arrested thus far in connection with the attacks.
—With files from Reuters, Global News’ Jeff Semple and the Canadian Press.