Violence erupted in a Sri Lankan town bombed on Easter Sunday after a largely Catholic mob attacked Muslim-owned shops and a vehicle – prompting church authorities to call for calm and no further hostilities against Muslims in the area.
A minor riot broke out Sunday in Porutota village near Negombo after a dispute between a Muslim tuk tuk driver and a group of Catholics, who wanted to inspect the vehicle, an army intelligence source told CNN. The source requested anonymity as they were not authorized to speak to media about the case.
The argument over the tuk tuk descended into violence and dozens of rioters rampaged through the streets that evening, the source said. The vehicle was set alight and two Muslim-owned shops also attacked, they added.
Sri Lanka Police spokesman Ruwan Gunasekara told a press conference on Monday that two drunk groups were responsible for the riot.
The ensuing violence led to extra police forces being deployed to the coastal village and a curfew being enforced on Sunday “to control the situation,” Gunasekara added.
Argument turns into violence
Sri Lanka’s Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, said in a statement that anyone who lost property in Sunday’s clashes would be compensated by the government.
Videos of the incident seen by CNN showed a street of the coastal town littered with debris and a number of men brandishing sticks.
Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, Archbishop of Colombo, blamed the incident on drunkenness and called for the closure of liquor shops in the area.
“When people are under the influence of alcohol, people sometimes behave worse that animals,” he said, according to state media.
“Despite the number of deaths, I commend the people for remaining calm and acting with restraint. I take this opportunity to thank the Buddhist, Hindu and Muslim religious leaders. Some parties are trying to instigate communal hatred to create religious clashes.”
Both Muslim and Christian community leaders have expressed concerns of potential further violence in the wake of the Easter Sunday attacks, which left more than 250 people dead and 500 injured.
In Negombo, more than 100 worshipers were killed after a suicide bomber walked into St. Sebastian’s Church on Easter Sunday. The National Tawheed Jamath (NTJ) Islamist extremist group, which aligned itself with ISIS, has been blamed for the attacks.
Muslims and Christians make up tiny minorities in Sri Lanka, which is predominantly Buddhist. Both groups have faced pressure in the past from hardline Buddhist groups, and typically worked together to promote better intercommunal harmony.
“I earnestly request the Catholics not to raise a hand against the Muslims,” Ranjith said. “The Muslims are not behind this incident. Those behind this attack are misguided persons who are being manipulated by international forces to realize their political aims. According to the teachings of our religion, we should not harm anyone.”
Police and army soldiers have been deployed to many churches and mosques around Sri Lanka since Easter Sunday, both over fears of further terrorist violence, and revenge attacks.
Muslim leaders across Sri Lanka told CNN of how they repeatedly attempted to warn the authorities about the potential for extremist violence growing within the community, including from the preachings of the alleged leader of the Easter Sunday attacks, Zahran Hashim.
Journalist Ajith Wickramasinghe reported from Colombo. CNN’s Tara John wrote from London. CNN’s James Griffiths contributed reporting from Hong Kong.