Another country, another terrorist attack, another slaughter. This time the location was Sri Lanka, where a series of bombs targeted Catholic and Evangelical churches and foreigner-friendly hotels, killing more than 300 people and wounding another 500, almost all Sri Lankan citizens. The Easter killings were a calculated attack on Christianity.
No one took responsibility, but the Sri Lankan government initially concluded that the attack was carried out by seven suicide bombers from a local extremist Islamic group, National Thowheed Jamath. (NTJ was largely unknown until last year, when its members were accused of defacing Buddhist statues — a far different crime.) Later State Minister of Defense Ruwan Wijewardene indicated that the lesser-known Jammiyathul Millathu Ibrahim also was involved. He suggested that the attacks were in retaliation for the March attack on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, but admitted that was simply an assumption based on the targeting of Christians and foreigners.
Police arrested 24 members of NTJ but said they suspected it received outside assistance. Health minister and cabinet spokesman Rajita Senaratne opined that “we do not believe these attacks were carried out by a group of people who were confined to this country. There was an international network without which these attacks could not have succeeded.” Similarly, a presidential spokesman announced: “The intelligence reports [indicate] that foreign terrorist organizations are behind the local terrorists.” The government offered no supporting evidence or details, but one security official called NTJ an ISIS front; American officials also indicated that the group had had contacts with ISIS, though their significance was unclear.
Anti-terrorism experts initially assumed direct foreign responsibility. Alan Keenan of the International Crisis Group observed: “Sri Lanka has never seen this sort of attack — coordinated, multiple, high-casualty — ever before, even with the Tamil Tigers during the course of a brutal civil war.” He thought “the dynamics are global, not driven by some indigenous debate.” The carnage was of the sort typically sought by al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, the latter especially as it shifts from creating a caliphate to generating bloody chaos. Indeed, the Islamic State attacked a Catholic church in the Philippines in January. On Tuesday ISIS claimed it had carried out attacks, though absent further evidence, that could reflect opportunistic posturing.
Compounding the tragedy, foreign governments warned Colombo of potential attacks more than two weeks ago. Rauff Hakeem, minister of city planning, criticized the “colossal failure on the part of the intelligence services.” Housing Construction Minister Sajith Premadasa denounced the security services’ “negligence and incompetence.” Telecommunications Minister Harin Fernando even reported that he was urged by his father, who heard rumors of possible attacks, not to attend major churches. Added Fernando: “Some intelligence officers were aware of this incident. Therefore there was a delay in action. Serious action needs to be taken as to why this warning was ignored.”
Sri Lankan intelligence apparently had been monitoring the group and tracking its leaders for months. The government was aware in January that Islamic radicals had stockpiled bomb materials and more than a week ago acknowledged threats against Catholic churches. After the attack, government spokesman Rajitha Senaratne admitted that the authorities had received multiple warnings about possible NTJ activity. The speedy arrest of more than a score of the group’s operatives suggests that timely action could have disrupted the operation.
The fault likely lies at least in part with the country's extended governmental crisis. President Maithripala Sirisena runs the security agencies, which apparently did not share the information with Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. After joining together in 2015 to defeat Mahinda Rajapaksa, an authoritarian who had triumphed in a bloody civil war, the two have been feuding in a bizarre political soap opera: Last October, Sirisena attempted to replace Wickremesinghe with Rajapaksa but was thwarted by the parliament and the courts. The forthcoming presidential election is certain to be bitterly fought.
The Easter attacks were pure terrorism. However, on a daily basis, Sri Lanka has become an increasingly hostile home to any faith other than Buddhism.
Buddhism is the state religion, accounting for roughly 70 percent of the population. Hindus, Muslims, and Christians follow — accounting for 12.6 percent, 9.7 percent, and 7.4 percent, respectively, of the population. The religious divide was exacerbated by the long-running conflict, which ended a decade ago, between majority Sinhalese and minority Tamils, mostly Hindus though also some Christians. The Tamil Tigers, though nominally secular, targeted Buddhists and Muslims, strengthening Sinhalese identification with Buddhism.
Unfortunately, the country's Buddhism is not that of myth — gentle followers of the Buddha spreading love and happiness while communing with nature. Rather, many of these Buddhists, starting with monks, are violent nationalists. Cruel xenophobia has been on the rise since 2012 and is similar to that increasingly seen in Burma/Myanmar, though so far without the extreme brutality of the latter's pogrom against the Muslim Rohingya.
Sri Lanka formally guarantees religious freedom, but last year the nation’s supreme court ruled there was no constitutional right to evangelize. Previous proposals for an anti-conversion law, criminalizing evangelism, were defeated, but religious minorities remain at risk. The latest State Department report on religious liberty observed that “government officials at the local level engaged in systematic discrimination against religious minorities, especially Muslims and converts to denominational Christian groups. Local government officials and police reportedly responded minimally or not at all to numerous incidents of religiously motivated violence against Muslim and Christian minorities. There were some reports of government officials being complicit in physical attacks on religious minorities and their places of worship.”
Open Doors ranks Sri Lanka as No. 46 on its World Watch list of the 50 worst persecutors. Converts face discrimination and harassment. Moreover, noted Open Doors, “Christian churches are frequently targeted by neighbors, and local officials sometimes demand they close their buildings, which they regard as illegal. This repeatedly leads to mobs protesting against and attacking churches, especially in rural areas.” Flyers have been distributed targeting both Christians and Muslims.
One of the more disturbing violent outbreaks occurred in 2014, when the Buddhist group Bodu Bala Sena, or “Buddhist Power Force,” led demonstrations that turned violent. Reported the New York Times: “Shops and homes in the area, many of them owned by Muslims, were set ablaze and vandalized in violence that continued throughout the night. Mobs shouting anti-Muslim slogans and hurling gas bombs and stones advanced” on the Muslim section of town, where street battles were fought and mosques were burned. The police intervened only after the fighting ended. Rajapaksas and other members of the government, which then amounted to a family-owned business, were thought to back Bodu Bala Sena. After this incident, National Thowheed Jamath was formed.
Similar violent incidents have continued over the years. Last year featured another round of attacks by Buddhist mobs, also likely backed by Bodu Bala Sena, against mosques as well as homes and businesses of Muslims. In response the government imposed a ten-day state of emergency in the region affected. Monks actively promoted the attacks, then protested, demanding the release of those arrested by the police.
After the bombing, human-rights activist Ruki Fernando reported that each of the previous Sundays Christian services had been disrupted somewhere on the island. The National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka reported increased attacks on Christians last year, cataloguing 86 incidents. There have been 35 acts already this year, including a mob attack on a Methodist prayer center on Palm Sunday, the week before Easter. Problems included violence, intimidation (such as death threats against converts and demands that churches close), harassment, police inaction, false charges, and government-registration requirements. An attorney working with the group warned that “communities are being mobilized in an increasing manner against Christians.” The lawyer, who wished to remain anonymous, added: “Extremist elements are able to influence communities as a whole and lead violent mob attacks against places of worship and people.”
According to the State Department, Christian churches “continued to report physical attacks and harassment by police and local government officials who often sided with the religious majority in a given community.” State cited numerous cases of assault on and intimidation against Christians by vigilantes, monks, police, and public officials. There were similar attacks on mosques and Muslims. Government permission is required for new church construction. And the authoritarian tenor of Sri Lankan politics, even with a nominally reform government committed to religious freedom, was reflected in the threat of a past justice minister to jail a human-rights activist who publicized 190 attacks on Christians during this government’s tenure.
There also has been a rise in Hindu nationalism, as in India. The 2014 victory there of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party inflamed and empowered Hindu extremists, increasing violent attacks on Christians and Muslims in India. Groups such as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Singh, or RSS, to which Modi belonged, have become more active in Sri Lanka’s Hindu enclaves, spurring religious hostility and violence.
The result is increased feelings of insecurity among religious minorities. Complained Tasnim Nazeer, a British journalist whose parents and husband are Sri Lankan: “Despite empty reassurances from the government, minority groups have long felt unprotected.” The government has failed its most basic responsibility of protecting its citizens. Asked Nazeer: “Why do we have to wait for a tragedy of this magnitude to occur for those in power to wake up and listen to the people of Sri Lanka?”
Christianity's dominant role in American culture has obscured the fact that it is the most persecuted faith globally. Some of that reflects totalitarian atheism, as in North Korea and China, and Buddhist and Hindu nationalism, evident in Sri Lanka and Burma in the first case and India and Nepal in the second. Nevertheless, even the worst radical Buddhist depredations in Sri Lanka fall far short of the Easter bombings. Islam remains the fount of the most virulent and violent attacks on Christians worldwide, including in Sri Lanka.
There is no easy answer, and obviously most Muslims do not support terrorism. Governments need to do better defending against terrorists, but that is not enough. Underlying such violence is a contempt for people of other faiths, reflected in the fact that virtually every Muslim nation persecutes its religious minorities. The only question is how much. Nominal American friend Saudi Arabia continues to spend lavishly to promote hostility and intolerance to “the other” around the world. Yet ISIS’s rise demonstrates how in sowing the wind of intolerance and hatred Muslim societies risk reaping the whirlwind.
Atrocities such as the latest attack demonstrate the importance of people of good will, and especially religious minorities, working together to respect and affirm the lives and dignity of all. That includes Muslims. They too have been victims. Without that shared commitment, there will more bombings, more killings, and more tragedies, even on a day that showcases the hope of renewal, salvation, and peace.