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Shock, sadness across region after bombings in Sri Lanka

Security forces secured the area around St. Anthony's Shrine after an explosion hit on Sunday in Colombo, Sri Lanka.Getty Images

Across New England, residents awoke Easter morning to shocking reports of bombings that killed nearly 300 and wounded hundreds more at churches and hotels in Sri Lanka, prompting an outpouring of concern and support.

Upton resident Janath DeSilva checked his cellphone about 9 a.m. Sunday and found “a lot of messages” from worried friends and acquaintances.

He felt “total shock and disbelief, and concern for family and friends,” he said. “My heart goes out to all the victims’ families. . . . Attacking religious institutions, I think, is such a cowardly act.”

DeSilva, 50, grew up in Sri Lanka, and his 75-year-old mother still lives on the outskirts of Colombo, the South Asian nation’s capital and the center of Sunday’s attacks, which the Sri Lankan defense minister described as acts of terrorism by religious extremists.

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DeSilva was worried for his mother’s safety, especially when he phoned her home and got the answering machine, he said, but later he was able to connect with her. She told DeSilva she had gone next door to watch news reports of the attacks on television with a neighbor.

Their family is Buddhist, the majority religion in the island nation that is still recovering from a bloody 26-year civil war that ended a decade ago. Hinduism is the second-largest faith in the nation of about 21 million people, and Christianity its third, DeSilva said.

“It’s a little bit surprising that the Christian faith was targeted, because I haven’t seen anything of an issue with the Christians in Sri Lanka,” said DeSilva, who is vice president of the Sri Lanka Association of New England.

On Sunday afternoon, DeSilva was waiting — waiting to hear back from cousins and aunts to make sure that they’re safe, and waiting to hear more from Sri Lankan officials about the suspects and their motives.

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“Obviously somebody is trying to disrupt the peace we’ve had for 10 years,” DeSilva said.

A vigil for the Sri Lankan immigrant community is planned for this week at the New England Buddhist Vihara & Meditation Center in Grafton, DeSilva said, but organizers hadn’t set a date yet.

Janath DeSilva of Upton is vice president of the Sri Lanka Association of New England.Nathan Klima for The Boston Globe

At the center on Sunday, Bhante Pannasiri, a Buddhist monk, said he had learned from a friend that a few people he knew were among the victims.

“I’m really so horrified,” Pannasiri said. “This is really an unexpected thing.”

Buddhist teachings promote compassion and kindness toward all beings, Pannasiri added. He even prays for peace for those behind the bombings, he said.

“We have to develop peace in ourselves,” he said. “Peace is not a word — it’s in our hearts.”

The bombings felt very close to home for Harvard sophomore Reshini Premaratne, 20.

The Sri Lankan native celebrated New Year’s Eve in 2018 with her family at the Cinnamon Grand, one of three luxury hotels that were bombed, and relatives had planned to visit another of those resorts on Sunday, she said.

“It sometimes feels very distant, but literally four months ago I was standing in that very hotel, Premaratne said. “It’s very jarring.”

Premaratne’s aunt and uncle had planned to visit the Shangri-La Hotel in Colombo for an Easter luncheon, but learned Sunday that it was among the bombing sites.

“We’re really grateful they didn’t go earlier,” Premaratne said.

Urshella Hishaam, a Harvard junior from Sri Lanka, said Sunday’s violence is especially “heartbreaking” because the civil war — and the violence it brought — had finally receded into Sri Lanka’s past.

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“It’s just something that a lot of people have been trying to avoid,” said Hishaam, 20. “I know the people of Sri Lanka don’t want to go back to the state that we were in a few years ago.”

Hishaam was able Sunday to briefly contact close relatives, but the communication situation is “definitely not ideal,” she said, because Sri Lankan officials have temporarily blocked many social media platforms to halt the spread of misinformation.

“There’s been a constant level of unrest back home,” Hishaam said. “It’s terrifying to feel so helpless here and just to hear about it, but I’m confident that everything that can be done is being done right now.”

“I’m really so horrified. This is really an unexpected thing,” said Bhante Pannasiri, a Buddhist monk who was at the New England Buddhist Vihara & Meditation Center in Grafton on Sunday.Nathan Klima for The Boston Globe

Across the region, religious leaders and government officials also spoke out about the bombings.

Cardinal Sean O’Malley expressed outrage and offered comfort, joining other clerics, including Pope Francis, who denounced the “cruel violence” of the “grave attacks” during an Easter Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica.

“We join the world in shock and horror at the devastating attacks on innocent people in Sri Lanka and condemn the senseless, unprovoked violence on those worshipping in churches and visiting that country,” O’Malley wrote on Twitter.

O’Malley also denounced the attacks in an interview with WBZ NewsRadio after celebrating Easter Mass at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross.

“Religious persecution throughout the world is such a terrible scourge,” he said, “and we certainly identify with these people, who came because they were going to celebrate the Lord’s resurrection with great joy, and then to be involved in that violence and that tragedy.”

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US senators Edward J. Markey and Elizabeth Warren both posted statements to Twitter. Markey called the attacks “heartbreaking.”

“We stand with all of those impacted,” the Malden Democrat wrote.

“America is all too familiar with the pain of our places of worship becoming places of tragedy, and we mourn with the victims and their loved ones.”

Warren wrote that she was “heartsick for the victims.”

“Hundreds have been killed and wounded,” the Cambridge Democrat and 2020 presidential aspirant wrote. “To slaughter worshippers at church during Easter service is an act of great evil.”

Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh also shared his thoughts on Twitter, writing, “Targeting innocent people on a holy weekend in places of worship is horrifying. My prayers are with the people of Sri Lanka today as we mourn the loss of their loved ones. Together, we will stand united against hate and violence.”

Boston Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy offered the team’s support at a pregame new conference on Sunday in Toronto.

“Our thoughts and prayers go out to . . . those folks,” Cassidy said. “It shows you there’s bigger stuff than sporting events going on in the world.”


Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at jeremy.fox@globe.com. Sophia Eppolito can be reached at sophia.eppolito@globe.com. Maddie Kilgannon can be reached at maddie.kilgannon@globe.com.

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