Thousands of people have signed a petition calling for the beatification of 171 Catholics slain during the 2019 Easter Sunday bombings in Sri Lanka.

Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, Archbishop of Colombo yesterday (21st April) received the appeal from Catholics in his diocese calling for the slaughtered Christians to be beatified – a step along the way to being declared saints.

Father Gregory Vajira Silva of St Sebastian’s Church, Katuwapitiya, said his parishioners are martyrs because they died for choosing to come to Mass on Easter to proclaim their faith in the risen Christ.

Father Silva lost 115 parishioners – including 27 children.

On Easter Sunday 2019, nine suicide bombers murdered a total of 264 people and injured more than 500 at six different locations – three churches and three luxury hotels.

Katuwapitiya, where the worst massacre took place, is nicknamed “Little Rome” because of its large Catholic population and numerous religious monuments.

Father Silva told Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN): “I couldn’t believe my eyes. There were bodies everywhere.

“Everything happened so quickly, unexpectedly, and brutally.”

The priest added that “the owner of the local cemetery donated a plot of land” because his parish did not have enough space to bury all the dead.

He said: “The man who did this to us lived here for three months, like just another villager…

“People believed and trusted in him – they treated him like a brother.

“But he simply betrayed the love they had shown him.”

He added that the terrorist act exposed “an ideology” threatening the very fabric of Sri Lankan society. The jihadist group Islamic State claimed responsibility for the Easter bombings.

He explained that the churches in Katywapitiya were closed for security reasons after the attack, but the faithful kept calling and asking about Mass times.

Father Silva said that he and other priests celebrated Mass in people’s homes: “We realised that we have no life without the Eucharist.”

He underlined that the atrocity left the community deeply traumatised – “many people lost family members…

“We need a great miracle of healing. Everyone was affected.”

Father Silva explained that priests were assigned groups of families to offer emotional and practical support in the aftermath of the massacre.

He concluded: “We didn’t preach at that time – we were simply there for them, and they could feel it.

“We helped them, listened to them, cried with them, shared what they were experiencing at that time.”