Terror threatens all Sri Lankan communities after Easter explosions

By Savi Hensman
April 23, 2019

People of all communities queued to donate blood after horrific terror attacks on churches and hotels on Easter Day in Sri Lanka. The nation was in mourning after at least 321 were killed and hundreds of others injured by suicide bombers.

St Anthony’s Shrine in Colombo and St Sebastian’s Church, Negombo, both Roman Catholic, were packed. The evangelical Zion Church in Batticaloa was also targeted, as were hotels in Colombo, in a series of blasts. The next day, Monday 22 April, there was another explosion as police tried to defuse a bomb in a van in Colombo.

For the injured and bereaved, and those whose neighbourhoods were hit, what was usually a time of joy turned to tragedy. Almost ten years after the end of a brutal civil war with mass casualties, many others are terrified of a return to violence. For decades before that, government, paramilitary and rebel groups battled for supremacy. Numerous civilians were killed, mistreated or driven from their homes.

According to the government, National Thowheed Jamath was responsible. This small group, which uses a distorted version of Islam to justify violence, was viewed with suspicion by other Muslims. Indeed Hilmy Ahamed, the vice president of the Muslim Council of Sri Lanka, claims he warned military intelligence officials years ago about its extremism. In April, more specific intelligence was reportedly received and an inquiry is under way as to why more was not done to prevent the attacks. Several people suspected of being involved were arrested afterwards, though ongoing vigilance is needed.

Reports indicate that some Muslims wholly unconnected with the attack have been targeted by neighbours in the aftermath. Yet Muslims were among those murdered or traumatised by the bombings, as well as those caring for the survivors. Also in Sri Lanka, many people of faith revere the holy wherever it is found; for instance St Anthony’s was popular beyond the Christian community. And a flare-up of intercommunal tensions would reward the bombers, who set out to deepen divisions.

An unstable peace

While the government and security forces should rightly be held accountable for what they did or did not do to head off the threat, wider society has also had a role and now faces challenges if peace is to be rebuilt.

During the years that rival groups battled one another and harmed helpless non-combatants, people from all the major ethnic and religious communities could be found among both the victims and perpetrators. This included bloodshed within communities, for instance among members of the Sinhalese and Buddhist majority, or by Tamils against one another. Acts of terror and repression, by the state or other armed organisations, led to a cycle of violence, though there were also people who sheltered friends and neighbours or worked bravely for peace.

However, lessons from the past have not been fully learnt, in part because politicians and to some extent civil society shied away from fully examining the damage done – physical, psychological and spiritual. While there were some moves towards reconciliation, human rights were not guaranteed for minorities and the economically impoverished, leading to ongoing inequality and insecurity.

Some politicians stoked up anti-minority prejudice and violence for their own ends, leaving many Muslims and Christians feeling deeply insecure. An attack on a Methodist centre in Anuradhapura on Palm Sunday, 14 April 2019, in the presence of the bishop left many shocked.

At the same time, among some minorities too, extremism has been gaining strength. Though of course numerous people who are culturally conservative, even oppressive, are far from endorsing terror, Muslim feminists among others have been warning of the influence of the Middle East. There have been calls for a religious renewal  that builds bridges and it has been pointed out that minorities, as well as the majority, can play a part in overcoming fear and hate ).

Meanwhile the pseudo-Hindu Hindutva movement, responsible for harsh violence in India, was gaining ground in the North of Sri Lanka. Without downplaying the responsibility of those directly involved in the Easter Day carnage, this was fertile ground for extremism of various kinds to flourish.

The message of Easter

If the risk of further such attacks on defenceless people in Sri Lanka is to be substantially reduced, willingness to seek justice for all, and to confront narrowness and prejudice, are important. Politicians and the media cannot be relied on: Sri Lankans of all communities, and those who care about them overseas, can contribute to this. It is vital to keep pointing put that hardliners do not represent anyone but themselves.

Easter is also a time of hope, based not on a shallow belief that all is well but rather confronting the human capacity for evil and reality of death and proclaiming that love, mercy and life are ultimately mightier.

On the morning of the attacks Dhiloraj Canagasabey, the Anglican Bishop of Colombo, was celebrating holy communion when police arrived and warned him, “You must come with us, they are about to come and kill you.” But he insisted on completing the prayer over the bread and wine, unwilling to let terror override faith.

Later he and Keerthisiri Fernando, the Bishop of Kurunegala, issued a statement, condemned the bombings, offered condolences and prayers and called on the government to “bring the perpetrators to justice” and “ensure the safety of places of religious worship and to prevent any individuals or group taking the law into their hands or provoking acts of intimidation or violence against any community or group.”

They warned that those “who planned and executed such appalling acts” could be seeking “to cause damage to the unity and harmony of our nation” and said: “We pray that these persons, whoever they may be, will be awakened to the awfulness of their crime.” They also offered a prayer that “we will be able to journey through this dark phase of our country.  May the Peace of the Risen Christ who on the cross prayed for forgiveness be with you all.”

There has been an outpouring of concern and support for those affected, from across the globe. In the face of terror, for those of different faith traditions and none, hope remains vitally important, along with the quest for compassion and justice for all.

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© Savitri Hensman is an Ekklesia associate and respected commentator on welfare and other issues. She is author of the book Sexuality, struggle and saintliness: same-sex love and the church (Ekklesia, 2016): http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/22613 and has been involved in seeking greater inclusion. She wrote on ‘Health or Wealth?’ in Feast or Famine? (http://dltbooks.com/titles/2195-9780232532616-feast-or-famine)

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