Scared Muslim refugees flee Sri Lankan homes over attack fears

Scared Muslim refugees flee Sri Lankan homes over attack fears
The Easter suicide attacks have been condemned by leaders of the country's Muslim minority, but the community has been left in fear of a backlash (AFP)

COLOMBO: Hundreds of Muslim refugees in western Sri Lanka have taken refuge in mosques and a police station after facing intimidation following the deadly Easter bombings, activists said Thursday.

At least 359 people died in Sunday’s coordinated suicide blasts, including more than 100 Christians attending mass at St Sebastian’s church in Negombo on the island’s west coast.

The attacks have been condemned by leaders of the country’s Muslim minority who have said mosques will not bury the bombers, and the community has been left in fear of a backlash.

Scores of Ahmadi Muslims who settled in Negombo after fleeing persecution in their home countries have been thrown out of their accommodation by landlords, according to officials.

“Today these refugees have become refugees again in Sri Lanka. They have been displaced for a second time,” Ruki Fernando of Inform, a Sri Lankan human rights group, told reporters.

The refugees are from Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen and Iran. Ahmadis have faced repeated attacks in these countries by hardline Islamist groups who do not consider them to be Muslim.

Relations between Ahmadis and native Sri Lankans have long been tense with many locals in Negombo accusing the refugees of driving up rent prices.

Ahmadis complain of harassment while rights groups accuse Sri Lanka’s government of not doing enough to protect the community.

Fernando said homeowners had evicted the refugees because they feared their properties would be targeted by groups seeking revenge for the bomb blasts which were carried out by Islamist extremists.

Many others have fled of their own accord, fearing for their safety.

“Some unknown people broke into their houses in Negombo and beat them,” Fernando told reporters.

He said numbers had yet to be verified but around 700 refugees were believed to have sought shelter in one Negombo mosque.

Around 120 were at a police station while several hundred more were at another mosque in Pasyala, in Gampaha, 25 kilometres (15 miles) from Negombo.

– ‘Won’t accept their bodies’ –

He said that dozens got on buses to leave Negombo on Wednesday but turned back after they were advised against heading to the capital Colombo over security fears.

“People are scared. They are in a vulnerable position and don’t have basic facilities,” said Herman Kumar from Unity of Negombo Citizens, a group trying to foster communal harmony in the city.

The comments came at a press conference in Colombo where community leaders from Sri Lanka’s different religions urged unity and calm as tensions simmer on the island.

“We appeal to all communities to come together and protect each and every person,” Kumar said.

Sri Lankan Muslims account for 10 percent of the island’s population of 21 million, which is dominated by the Sinhalese Buddhist majority.

Muslims have been on the receiving end of sporadic violence and hate attacks since the civil war ended in 2009 and the bombings have left many feeling vulnerable.

Sri Lankan authorities say local Islamist group National Thowheeth Jama’ath carried out the blasts with the help of militants from abroad. The Islamic State group has claimed responsibility without providing evidence.

The leader of All Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulama, the main umbrella body for Sri Lanka’s Islamic clerics, told journalists Thursday that funerals would not be held for the attackers.

“Those who committed this barbaric attack on innocent civilians do not belong to us and hence we categorically state that we will not accept their bodies,” said Rizwe Mufti, the group’s president.

The country’s Minister for Muslim Affairs Abdul Haleem meanwhile called Thursday for mosques to cancel Friday prayers in a show of solidarity “against the barbaric acts of the ruthless terrorists”.

He said Muslims should instead pray at home that “almighty Allah destroys the activities of those inhuman terrorist murderers”.