Easter bombings come after wave of attacks against Sri Lankan Christians
(NEWS ANALYSIS) Sri Lankan Christians had reason to worry much before the six serial blasts on the island that killed more than 300 people on Easter Sunday.
April 14, 2019: A Methodist prayer center was attacked in Anuradhapura, a three and a half hour drive from the Sri Lankan Capital, Colombo. The president of the Methodist Church, Bishop Asiri Perera, was held hostage along with a number of church members by locals.
April 7, 2019: At 9:10 am, six Buddhist monks and 50 villagers entered the premises and questioned the pastor during the Sunday worship service at a church at Morawaka, a three-hour drive from Colombo. The monks allegedly accused him of carrying out religious services illegally. A policeman dressed in civilian clothes arrived to look into the legal documents and allegedly assaulted a congregant who tried to record the proceedings.
April 2, 2019: At 11:30 pm, a pastor’s home in Medirigiriya, a four-hour drive from Colombo, was allegedly attacked by unidentified individuals.
March 19, 2019: At Ja-Ela, a suburb of Colombo, a mass protest reportedly led by over 1,000 people held outside a church demanding its closure.
On Tuesday, ISIS claimed responsibility for the Easter Sunday attacks on churches and upscale hotels, targeting Christians and citizens of countries fighting ISIS. Based on early investigations, the Sri Lankan health minister Rajitha Senaratne had blamed the homegrown Islamic militant group National Thowheed Jamaath for the attacks. ISIS has repeatedly called on its followers worldwide for attacks on churches.
Sri Lanka is 70 percent Buddhist. Just over 15 percent are Hindus, about 10 percent Muslims and seven percent Christians. Christians are often ostracized and labeled as “unpatriotic.” For example, the majority of state-run schools do not teach Christianity as a subject but teach Buddhism or Hinduism. And while Sri Lanka calls itself a secular state, its constitution calls for the state “to protect and foster… the teachings of the Buddha.” Other religions are not given the same fundamental right of state protection.
In the past two years, Sri Lankan Christians have been attacked by various hardline Buddhist and Hindu groups. Minor Matters, a public movement dedicated to protecting the rights and liberties of religious minorities in Sri Lanka, recorded 40 incidents of discrimination, violence, and intimidation targeting Sri Lanka’s Christian community so far this year. The National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka (NCEASL), a collective of 200 churches and organizations, reported 86 incidents of discrimination, threats and violence against Christians in 2018.
In September last year, a group of about 100 people stopped the worship of a church at Beliatta, Hambantota District. They damaged the window of the church and two motorcycles parked outside, and removed religious symbols hanging at the front door. In 2017, after a Sunday morning service, a group of about 50 people, including Buddhist monks, forced entry into a Christian Fellowship Church in Ingiriya and threatened the priest. According to NCEASL, there were 97 incidents of attacks on churches, intimidation and violence in 2017.
Recently, there has also been tension between Hindus and Christians. Last year, some Hindus allege that more than 200 Christians in Mannar led by a pastor attacked a group of Hindus when they were building a temple on land reserved for them. Some Hindus also allege that a Christian mob tore down a Hindu temple archway in March. Meanwhile, Christians are concerned about a growing number of radical Hindu groups under the umbrella of the India-based Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP).
Sectarian violence in Sri Lanka has also made international headlines recently after a series of attacks against Muslims by the hardline Buddhist group Bodu Bala Sena (BBS). Last year, a young BBS monk raised a battle cry against Muslim Sri Lankans by saying, “The sword at home is no longer to cut jackfruit; so, kindly sharpen it and go.” Again last year, monks circulated posts on Facebook accusing Muslim shopkeepers of mixing sterilization pills in food meant for Buddhist customers.
Some sections of Sri Lankan Buddhists continue to justify the actions of the BBS as preventing what they see as an erosion of Buddhist values and the dominant place of Buddhists in Sri Lanka, according to the Colombo-based International Centre for Ethnic Studies (ICES).
The Muslim community had always been a staunch supporter of the Sinhala-Buddhist political establishment, as it similarly suffered at the hands of the LTTE rebel group, more commonly known as the Tamil Tigers, who expelled all Muslims from northern provinces. The anti-Muslim propaganda has been widely spread across the country. If investigations reveal that Islamists were truly behind the Easter attacks, Muslims in Sri Lanka may be subjected to more atrocities. No one knows yet what that will mean for Christians.