The Easter Sunday massacre: Sri Lanka's complex religious landscape is a challenge

When I first heard news of the bombings of churches and hotels in Sri Lanka, I wondered which group was to blame this time. At first, the government was calling it a terrorist attack by “religious extremists.”

That’s it? Think of it: 290 people dead. That’s five times the amount of Muslims shot by in two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, on March 15. Why has everyone tried to sidestep the identity of the Sri Lankan perpetrators when it seems obvious who they are?

Sri Lanka is a majority Buddhist country and hardline Buddhist groups have consistently harassed the minority Christians there. This is a complex situation, as former GetReligionista Ira Rifkin noted in this post last year.

Writing in the Guardian, a Muslim writer points out here that religious Muslim and Christian minorities in Sri Lanka have been sitting ducks for militant Buddhists for a long time. Even after a Methodist church was attacked by Buddhists on Palm Sunday in the northern part of the country, no precautions were taken for Easter celebrations.

But when I heard the attacks were set off by suicide bombers, that brought to mind radicalized Muslims, not Buddhists. The former is known worldwide for its use of suicide bombers. (However, Sri Lanka is the birthplace of the mainly Hindu Tamil Tigers, who pioneered suicide bombings in the 1980s. More on that in a moment.)

As I wrote this Sunday night, no one was saying a word as to which religious group did this. Today, government officials say they believe an “Islamist militant group” is to blame. No group has taken credit for the attacks.

So far, the U.K. press has been more on top of this story than was American media, with the exception of the New York Times, which has turned out some very good pieces in the past 24 hours. First, so I turned to the Guardian:

At the luxury Cinnamon Grand, right in the centre of the city and close to the official residence of the president, Maithripala Sirisena, guests were filling the popular Taprobane restaurant on the ground floor, known for its seafood buffet and copious brunch offerings.

The hotel was having one of its busiest days of the year with the Easter holiday weekend, full of foreign holidaymakers and local people from Colombo’s well-heeled elite.

There had seemed nothing remarkable about the man as he queued at the buffet, plate in hand. He had checked in the night before, giving his name as Mohamed Azzam Mohamed and a false address. He had said he was in town for business. But just as he was about to be served, he set off a powerful bomb inside the packed restaurant.

I know people are cautious about casting blame before knowing all the facts, but the guy’s (false) name was “Mohamed”?

The Guardian also said that the government had an inkling beforehand that some kind of attack involving churches might happen.

The Sri Lankan security services are also likely to have questions to answer after Ranil Wickremesinghe, the prime minister, said there had been “information” about possible attacks, believed to be a reference to warnings reportedly received by local intelligence services around 10 days ago that “prominent churches” would be targeted by suicide bombers. It is not clear what if any precautions were taken.

The New York Times was a lot more specific as to what kind of terrorist group was behind this.

The shock of the bombings and the anger they generated was compounded by news that a top police official had alerted security officials 10 days earlier about a threat to churches from a radical Islamist group, National Thowheeth Jama’ath. It was unclear what precautions, if any, had been taken, or whether that group had played any role in the assaults.

As I mentioned before, Sri Lanka is a complex culture, when it comes to religion. This piece in the Japan Times said that when there’s been violence in Sri Lanka, usually it’s been Buddhists going after Muslims.

Recent years have seen growing sectarian tensions, including accusations of hate crimes by extremist Buddhist monks against minority Muslims.

There have been no attacks in Sri Lanka linked to foreign Islamist groups, but in January, Sri Lankan police seized a haul of explosives and detonators following the arrest of four men from a newly formed radical Muslim group.

This fascinating piece that ran some time ago in NPR tells about the Hindu/Marxist Tamil Tigers who made an art of suicide bombings decades ago with a specialty of going after political leaders.

The reason I don’t think the Tamils are behind this attack is because they’re known as an independence movement for Tamil regions of Sri Lanka. Plus, the churches that were attacked were full of Tamil Catholics.

The New York Times followed up its news piece on the bombing with an astute piece about how religious minorities all over Asia are getting persecuted and slaughtered — with Christians atop the list. I don’t know if this piece was waiting in the wings or whether the three reporters threw it together in a few hours, but it sums up how religious coexistence is becoming a fantasy in many South Asian countries.

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.

So who set off the bomb? I doubt it was the Buddhists or Hindus.

But if the newest reports are accurate and it was a radical Muslim group, why did it target Christians? Why not go after a Buddhist temple?

What I don’t doubt is the horrible tragedy of Easter Sunday becoming a bloody Sunday for so many whose only crime was to attend church and pay for it with their lives.

FIRST IMAGE: Screen grab from Fox News television coverage.

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