Coordinated explosions killed more than 200 people and injured more than 400 in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday. The timing was particularly significant, as were the targets – with three churches among the sites hit.
Four hotels also were struck, and there was an eighth explosion under a flyover. The attacks marked the deadliest violence in Sri Lanka since the civil war between the government and Tamil separatists ended a decade ago. No group or individual has asserted responsibility for the Sunday violence, but Defense Minister Ruwan Wijewardene said seven arrests have been made and characterized the blasts as terrorist attacks by religious extremists.
However, given that churches were targeted on Easter Sunday – the day when many Christians celebrate the resurrection of Christ and that is the holiest on the Christian calendar – many viewed the violence as directed against Sri Lanka’s Christian community.
Seventy percent of the roughly 22 million people in Sri Lanka are Buddhist, according to a 2012 census, 12.6 percent are Hindu, 9.7 percent are Muslim, and 7.6 percent are Christian (and the vast majority of Christians in Sri Lanka are Roman Catholic). The Tamil separatists were mostly Hindu, but some were Catholics; the Sinhalese are largely Buddhists. The decades-long civil war was more about nationalism and ethnicity than religion. The Christian population today is split between the Tamil minority and the Sinhalese majority.
Violent attacks on this scale against churches are somewhat without precedent in Sri Lanka. The Christian minority, however, does face violence and discrimination. Human rights activist Ruki Fernando noted on Twitter that, for the past 11 Sundays, church services across the country have faced some sort of disruption. Last year, 86 verifiable cases of discrimination, threats and violence against Christians were reported, according to the National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka. Before Sunday’s attacks, 26 such incidents have occurred this year, including the disruption of a Sunday service by Buddhist monks.
But the Christian community isn’t alone in being targeted by the Buddhist majority. The Muslim minority, too, is persecuted. In 2013, a Buddhist mob attacked a mosque in Colombo, injuring 12. As Amarnath Amarasingam, a senior research fellow at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, noted on Twitter, rumors of radicalization of Muslims and of extremist groups tied to outside funding have been used as an excuse by some in the majority to attack Muslims.
Sunday’s attacks were not thought to be carried out by Buddhist extremists and broke from previous patterns of violence and discrimination in two significant ways: The targeting of churches specifically was new, but so was the apparent targeting of foreign tourists, if indeed they were the targets in the hotel explosions, which was rare during the country’s decades of violence.
The government, meanwhile, has called for the people of Sri Lanka to come together.
“In the midst of this tragedy, it’s reassuring to see the outpouring of solidarity as people donate blood. Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Muslim & others are donating because we are humans with the same blood & same spirit of compassion,” tweeted Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera. “Nobody can deny our common humanity.”