12/20/2004, 00.00
SRI LANKA
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Catholic church set on fire near Colombo

Buddhist extremists are suspected. "They might destroy the building, but not our faith", said the parish priest. Faithful will still celebrate Christmas in nearby grotto.

Colombo (AsiaNews) – A Catholic church was set on fire Sunday night in a village 24 kilometres east of Sri Lanka's capital of Colombo.

Six men burst into St Michael's church, ransacked the building and torched the tabernacle, the altar and the Crucifix. They then set the whole building on fire.

Police investigating the arson are certain the attack was planned. Two levers used to break the church's door open were found on the crime scene as were two gas tanks.

St Michael's is a small church and has no resident clergy. Local Catholics manage it as part of the larger Christ the King parish in nearby Pannipitiya village whose priest, Fr Ignatius Varnakulasingham, does not exclude possible political involvement by Buddhist extremist groups.

This is second time that the small church becomes the target of arsonists.  Last January 15, ten people broke in and set it on fire. A few weeks earlier, a Buddhist mob tore down the cross and raised a Buddhist flag on its top.

Following these attacks police posted guards outside the building but they were removed just a few days ago.

"We believe the same group that attacked the church earlier was responsible for today's incident," Fr Chaminda Wanigasena, the local assistant parish priest, said.

He estimates that damages amount to about a million rupees (around US$ 9,500) and said that Milroy Fernando, a Catholic and Minister for Christian Religious Affairs, promised compensation for the church's reconstruction.

"Those guilty," Father Varnakulasingham said, "might as well know that they might burn our church to the ground, but they cannot destroy our faith".

St Michael's was built in the early 1960s and was an immediate cause of controversy because local Buddhist monks objected to its presence and the arrival of Catholic priests in the area.

About 130 Catholic families live in the area and the small church provides them with pastoral care.

"This mission has always suffered persecution," Father Wanigasena said, "but persecution has always strengthened the Catholic community and the parishioners".

A local Catholic who was threatened in the latest episode of violence said: "We are against violence, but no one can stop us from meeting here".

Although the church cannot be used, St Michael's parishioners are planning to celebrate Christmas in the nearby grotto of Our Lady. (LF)

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