History, Religion, Terrorism, Violence

The Tragic Familiarity of the Sri Lanka Bombings

Apr 22 2019

By Randy Boyagoda* – The New York Times

A country once split by ethnic hatreds is now a target for Islamic terrorism.

TORONTO — The series of suicide attacks on churches and hotels in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday, which has left nearly 300 dead and hundreds injured, are more than just a national or religious tragedy. For members of the Sri Lankan diaspora, including Catholics like me, who have family connections to the very places and parishes that were attacked, the country’s tribulations are no longer terrible, local and hard to explain to people unfamiliar with its unsettled history. Now they are terrible, local — and familiar.

Much of the world knows the outlines of Sri Lanka’s historic troubles — a three-decade civil war, fought along ethnic lines and punctuated by hundreds of suicide bombings carried out by the Tamil Tiger terrorist organization. But broad international interest in the island nation, and familiarity with its struggles, has largely been confined to the story of its civil war, which ended in 2009, and, at most, to ongoing, uneven reconciliations and renewals that have played out since then.

Now a new, shared context has emerged: All evidence so far suggests that the attacks were carried out by locally based Islamic terrorists.

The attackers knew their targets well, and seem to have chosen them for maximum symbolic value. St. Anthony’s, in the capital city of Colombo, is a national shrine, whose turn-of-the-19th-century origins are associated with the persecution of local Catholics by the country’s then-colonial Dutch rulers.

It has long been a place frequented by travelers — domestic and foreign, Catholic and non-Catholic — before they begin journeys around the island. On my last family trip to Sri Lanka, with four overtired, overheating children in the back seat, our driver took a maddeningly inefficient route out of the traffic-clogged big city just so he could first pray for the intercession of St. Anthony for a safe trip.

The second prominent church that was attacked, St. Sebastian’s, is in my mother’s place of birth, Negombo, a stout fishing town north of the capital. Negombo is nicknamed “Little Rome” because of its robust Catholic culture, which dates to 16th-century Portuguese colonialism.

Every January St. Sebastian’s plays host to an island-famous festival in honor of its namesake saint. Days and nights of prayer, procession and merrymaking are enjoyed by churchgoers alongside friends and neighbors.

Significantly, this was true before, during and after the civil war. I noted as much to a cousin and her husband a few years ago, after I visited the church and attended the festival with them and their children. They cited this as evidence of the country’s baseline religious pluralism, which I appreciated as a source of strong and meaningful contrast to its deep-cutting ethnic divisions. Will that still be the case at next year’s Feast of St. Sebastian?

That depends on what these attacks portend — whether the global currents of religiously inspired terrorism overwhelm the island’s longstanding experience with pluralism.

Befitting an island long at the center of global trade routes, Sri Lanka has for centuries been home to a diversity of faiths. Buddhism is intimately connected to Sri Lanka’s origin narratives, dating from at least 100 B.C.; Hinduism arrived definitively a few centuries later. Muslims have been in Sri Lanka since the Middle Ages, by way of the island’s commerce with the Arab world; and Christians have been there since at least the beginning of European colonialism in the 16th century.

These religions have not always lived in harmony, but such conflicts have generally been the exception, as peoples of different faiths, at least when it comes to faith itself, have generally figured out ways to live together in the distinctive shared space and comparative isolation of a small island country in the Indian Ocean.

That isolation is suddenly, undeniably gone. News reports about the recent attacks suggest that Sri Lankan authorities had already been monitoring local Islamic groups, which they suspected were plotting attacks on Catholic churches, who were no doubt inspired by global currents and conflicts situated far beyond the island’s shores.

At the same time, as the world responds, leaders from Pope Francis to President Trump have condemned the suicide bombings of churches and hotels in words and ways that are immediately familiar. Since news of Sunday’s attacks reached me in Toronto, I have been fielding a steady array of concern, and sending out my own, to loved ones back in Sri Lanka. For the first time, I can discuss a tragic situation in Sri Lanka with friends and colleagues with a searing, mutually assured comprehension.

Still, I wonder how these messages of sympathy and explanation are being received and felt by Sri Lankans. Islamic terrorism may be new, but suicide bombings are terribly familiar, after a decade-long break. They must wonder if anyone cares about the fraught efforts at political and economic renewal that have come in between, not to mention a necessarily imperfect but undeniably durable model of pluralist religious cohabitation.

Sympathy for Sri Lanka is not for what the island has lost. Rather, it is for what Sri Lanka has gained — membership in a global conflict that is at once fresh and familiar, for the island and for the world.

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*Randy Boyagoda is a novelist and professor of English at the University of Toronto, where he is also principal of St. Michael’s College.

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Related:

Religious Minorities Across Asia Suffer Amid Surge in Sectarian Politics

By Hannah Beech, Dharisha Bastians and Kai Schultz  – The New York Times

JAKARTA, Indonesia — The deadly attacks in Sri Lanka on Sunday highlighted how easily religious coexistence can be ripped apart in a region where secularism is weakening amid the growing appeal of a politics based on ethnic and sectarian identity.

In India, the country’s governing right-wing Hindu party is exploiting faith for votes, pushing an us-versus-them philosophy that has left Muslims fearing they will be lynched if they walk alone.

In Myanmar, the country’s Buddhist generals have orchestrated a terrifying campaign of ethnic cleansing against the country’s Rohingya Muslims.

And in Indonesia and Bangladesh, traditionally moderate Muslim politicians are adopting harder-line stances to appeal to more conservative electorates.

The attacks struck churches, five-star hotels and other sites in multiple cities.

The bombings of three churches in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday highlighted the vulnerability of Christians in Asia, where religious minorities of many faiths have been battered by this surge of nationalism and sectarian politics.

The explosions in Sri Lanka, which killed over 200 people, “brought mourning and sorrow” on the most important of Christian holidays, Pope Francis said after celebrating Mass in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican.

Christians make up only 6 percent of the population of Sri Lanka, which is still emerging from the shadow of a harrowing civil war between the Sinhalese Buddhist majority and ethnic Tamils, most of whom are Hindu or Christian.

It is not yet clear who carried out the bombings on Sunday, which also included raids on three high-end hotels in Colombo, the Sri Lankan capital. But Christians were a primary target, and their faith has been increasingly under attack by militants and politicians across South and Southeast Asia.

Over the past year, deadly bombings of churches by militants claiming allegiance to the Islamic State have rocked the Philippines and Indonesia.

In India, the Hindu right, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has targeted Muslim and Christian minorities, the latter group because of its symbolic association with British colonialism.

The ruling party in Bangladesh, the secular-leaning Awami League, has partnered with conservative Muslim clerics who routinely call for the persecution of religious minorities, including Christians.

In Myanmar, Christian minorities fear they will be the next targets of the Buddhist-dominated government.

And in Sri Lanka, a toxic Buddhist nationalist political force has agitated against minority Christians and Muslims, dismissing them as relics of a British colonial era when the Buddhist majority itself was repressed.

“We see how these radical Christian groups from the West come here and try to convert Buddhists,” Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thero, a hard-line Buddhist monk in Sri Lanka, said in an interview before he was jailed for contempt of court last year. “We cannot allow this to happen anymore.”

A week ago, on Palm Sunday — the beginning of the Christian Holy Week that culminates in Easter — a mob from Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese Buddhist majority gathered at a Methodist building in the city of Anuradhapura, bombarding the building with stones and firecrackers and trapping worshipers inside.

Last year, Sinhalese throngs, spurred on by incendiary rhetoric from extremist Buddhist monks, carried out deadly attacks on Muslims near the city of Kandy, the latest in a series of anti-Muslim riots in Sri Lanka.

“Muslims and Christians, especially evangelical Christians, have been facing persecution for many years in Sri Lanka, but the scale and nature of today’s attacks are not comparable,” said Ruki Fernando, a Roman Catholic human rights activist in Colombo.

In India, Christians constitute just 2 percent of the population. But since Mr. Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party came to power in 2014, space for India’s nearly 30 million Christians has narrowed.

As part of a broader crackdown on thousands of foreign-funded organizations, a major Christian charity, Compassion International, was shut down in 2017 amid accusations it was masterminding religious conversions.

Later that year, Christmas carolers linked to the Roman Catholic Church were assaulted by Hindus in the state of Madhya Pradesh. Eight priests who went to the police station to help were instead detained by the authorities. Outside the station, their car was set on fire.

Christians make up 6 percent of Sri Lanka’s population. More than 200 died in Sunday’s attacks.CreditEPA, via Shutterstock

In one northern Indian city, a far-right Hindu group sent letters to schools warning administrators of repercussions if they marked Christmas in classrooms.

Evangelical Christianity has found fertile ground across Asia, where the rapid rate of conversions has created tensions from India to Indonesia.

Thousands of Pakistani converts have fled to Thailand, where they fear they could be deported at any time. Three years ago on Easter, a suicide bomber targeted Christian faithful in a park in the Pakistani city of Lahore, killing more than 70 people.

In Malaysia, where members of the country’s Muslim majority are governed by Shariah law in certain legal matters, Muslims are rarely allowed to renounce their faith.

Even in Muslim-majority Indonesia, which held peaceful elections last Wednesday, faith-based politics have tilted the political landscape, as the persecution of religious minorities mounts with little pushback from moderate politicians.

Hundreds of churches have been forced to close in Indonesia, where about 10 percent of the population is Christian. Proselytizing is banned in the country, even though freedom of religion is protected in the country’s Constitution.

The Christian former governor of Jakarta, the Indonesian capital, was released this year after serving a 20 month sentence for blasphemy, a conviction that human rights groups saw as evidence of the rise of hard-line Islamic politics in a country that has long treasured its multifaith heritage.

President Joko Widodo, a Muslim moderate, failed to defend the former Jakarta governor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, who was his onetime protégé. Surviving a political smear campaign that implied he was an impious Muslim, Mr. Joko appears to have won a second term in this month’s elections.

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Hannah Beech reported from Jakarta, Indonesia; Dharisha Bastians from Colombo, Sri Lanka; and Kai Schultz from New Delhi. Ellen Barry contributed reporting.

 

 

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