Open Doors Sri Lankan worker Sunil* said, “On Easter Sunday, we’re supposed to celebrate. I never thought such a tragedy would befall us.
“Christians are shocked. The question on everyone’s lips is, ‘Why did this happen?’ People were confused. They didn’t understand why churches were being targeted. At first they thought it was a direct attack by a Buddhist extremist group since most persecution in Sri Lanka comes from them. But then there were also attacks on hotels. We were all very confused.”
Religious attacks of this type, scale, and severity are unprecedented in Sri Lanka. Attacks on Christian churches and believers have been confined in certain areas of the country, usually at the village level, and with no bombs involved. These smaller attacks are usually carried out by extremist Buddhists.
Sunil travelled to the disaster areas, although the government-imposed curfew has made travel difficult. Sunil said, “At the church in Batticaloa, even though only 28 people have been confirmed dead, many more people mostly children are still missing. The police have enforced a curfew until further notice and all social media has been blocked.”
A letter detailing the events of the attack, from Liyoni*, our co-worker traveling with Sunil:
We travelled to Batticaloa early yesterday morning to visit the Zion Church, which was bombed on the morning of Easter Sunday. After speaking to several people who witnessed that day’s events, the following is a detailed account of what had happened:
The suicide bomber, a well-dressed man carrying a backpack, had not specifically targeted the Zion Church. The most well-known church in the area is a Catholic church that is located right on the main road. He had first gone to this church but their mass had been held the night before. He had asked someone there if there are any masses at that time and that person had directed him to the Zion Church, which cannot be seen from the main road.
Once he was at the Zion Church, he had acted as though he was waiting for someone. When asked, he had stated that he was waiting for his sick mother and had inquired what time the healing service would start. Several people at the church, including the pastor’s wife, had spoken to the suicide bomber that morning. A man who had spoken to him recalls that he had been sweating profusely. He had been lingering near the pastor’s office for some time. Several people had urged him to go inside the church and take a seat and to take his backpack off. Since Batticaloa was an area that was severely affected by the civil war, the people are still very vigilant. Thinking his behaviour suspicious, a young man had been sent to speak to him. The man had been reluctant to go inside and had said he needs to make a phone call first. An eyewitness recalls that the explosion happened as soon as he dialled his phone.
At the time of the explosion the service had only just begun. Most of the casualties were children as they had been coming down after Sunday school (which had just ended) to have their breakfast. Since the man had been near the parking area when the bomb detonated, most of the damage had been caused by the motorcycles that blew up as a result of the bomb.
During our visit, we noticed that armed guards were scattered across the town and the road leading to the Zion Church has been blocked by the military and only residents are allowed through. Police officers were present at every funeral as well as at the cemetery. Every shop and bank in the area had closed as the townspeople stood in solidarity with the mourning Christians. People were seen putting up black and white flags along the streets. Many had gathered to pay their respects at the funerals, one of which we were able to attend. It was the funeral of the Sunday school teacher and her nephew aged 13. The boy’s parents were both present but the teacher’s husband is still at the hospital recovering from his injuries. Many people were rushing from one funeral to the next.
People are shaken by this incident and are in shock. There is also an ongoing threat of possible attacks all over Sri Lanka. Pray that the authorities will be able to apprehend everyone responsible so that people can feel safe once more. The tragic events of Easter Sunday reopened old wounds: The horrors of the war are still fresh in people’s minds. The thirty-year long civil war had scarred people as many had lived in constant fear during that time. Please pray for physical, psychological and spiritual healing. Everyone lost someone they knew, a family member or a friend. Pray for God’s strength and comfort upon those affected.
At the moment we are still halfway through to Colombo, as the curfew began while we were still on our way home. Over the next few days we will be visiting the funerals of the people who lost their lives during the attacks on the Catholic churches.
Thank you very much for your love and prayer support.
Your co-worker in Christ,
The six initial blasts occurred in St Anthony’s Church in Kochcikade, Colombo, St. Sebastian’s Church in Negombo, Zion Church in Batticaloa, and at the Kingsbury Hotel and the Cinnamon Grand Hotel in Colombo. The five star hotels were all offering special Easter themed breakfasts, while all churches celebrated the resurrection of Jesus Christ with an Easter service. One explosion occurred in the residential district Dematagoda and one in a hotel near Dehiwala Zoo.
The Sri Lankan government asked the media not to publish the names of the suspects. That would give other extremist groups the chance to exploit the situation and create tension between the communities.
“We’re still assessing the practical needs of the Christians who have been affected. So at the moment the greatest need is prayer.” Sunil said, “Please pray for all the people who were affected by this. Many are injured or grieving the loss of loved ones. Pray for strength and comfort and for His healing hand upon them.”
Persecuted Christians run a higher risk of being attacked during Christian holy days such as Christmas and Easter. Two of the most gruesome killings of Christians took place in 2017, 45 Christians were killed in Egypt on Palm Sunday and 75 Christians were killed in Lahore, Pakistan on Easter.
PERSECUTION IN SRI LANKA
Sri Lanka is number 46 on the Open Doors World Watch List.
Sri Lanka is predominantly Buddhist and ethnic Sinhala (80% of the population). The country has a long and violent history for religious and ethnic reasons. After decades of ethnic tension, a full-fledged civil war broke out in 1983. The Sinhalese Buddhist majority fought against the Tamil minority (predominantly Hindu, and a considerable number of Christians). There was a high death toll on both sides. The war ended finally in 2009 with the defeat of the Tamils. But true peace and reconciliation is still far off.
Due to this history, religious nationalism has thrived in Sri Lanka. Radical Buddhist groups have sprouted up across the country and were used by the previous government as a means of keeping religious minorities in check. The main victim was and still is the Muslim minority due to fear of the threat of Islamic radicalization poses.
Increasing violence led to the killing of Muslims in 2014 and flared up again in March 2018 in Kandy when several businesses owned by Muslims were destroyed by Buddhist radicals. Christians have also been facing attacks by local groups, frequently led by saffron-robed monks. Open Doors has recorded more than 60 attacks and incidents of harassment against Christians last year.
However these trends do not account for the horrific attacks on Christians this Easter. Bomb blasts are not the style of Buddhist nationalist extremists. The sophisticated coordination and planning needed for these attacks suggests they may have been carried out by ISIS and affiliated groups, who have perfected their methods to carry out deadly attacks. Indeed there are ISIS training grounds in the Philippines which have grown as the caliphate in the Middle East has been defeated.
In terms of coordination and number of sites chosen, the Sri Lanka attacks bear close resemblance to the November 2008 Mumbai attacks that killed 166 when 10 members of Lashkar-e-Taiba an Islamic terrorist organisation based in Pakistan, carried out a series of 12 coordinated shooting and bombing attacks lasting four days.
Asia is the new hotbed of persecution for Christians according to Open Doors researchers. Persecution in Asia has risen sharply over the last five years with one in three Asian Christians now suffering high levels of persecution. This persecution has many sources, however Islamic extremism has increased in the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia.