WELIWERIYA, Sri Lanka — Sri Lanka’s Roman Catholic church accused the military on Wednesday of shooting unarmed protesters and desecrating a church by entering it with weapons and attacking people who sought refuge during a violent crackdown on a demonstration last week.
Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith made the accusations in a message read at the funeral service of an 18-year-old high school student who was among three people who were fatally shot by the military last Thursday.
“We were shaken by this tragic loss of three innocent young lives … as a result of acts of provocation and excessive use of force—assaulting unarmed people and shooting at them,” Ranjith said.
He said it was “unacceptable and unjustifiable” to have attacked civilians who sought refuge inside St. Anthony’s Church during the military crackdown.
“Entering a holy church of the Catholics with arms and behaving in an inhuman manner has distressed the people and we would like to stress that we were shocked and saddened at the desecration of the venerated church,” he said.
Residents of Weliweriya town, northeast of Colombo, and surrounding villages were protesting a factory’s discharges of chemical waste that were polluting drinking water.
Witnesses and television reports said the military shot at the protesters and attacked them with poles, killing two teenagers and a 29-year-old man. They said at least 15 others were injured. Journalists said the military attacked them and damaged cameras before turning on the protesters.
Government ministers said the military was acting in self-defense because protesters threw gasoline bombs and shot at them at the instigation of a third party bent on discrediting the government.
Government officials often accuse unnamed third parties or foreign governments of trying to instigate people to unseat the government.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa has announced compensation for the victims. But Ranjith said only an independent investigation, prosecution of those responsible, and “democratic behavior” by the authorities during future public protests would be an appropriate tribute to the victims.
Including last week’s deaths, five people have died in the past two years after police or soldiers fired at protesters.