Deadly attacks in Sri Lanka tap into global anxiety about Christian-Muslim violence

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Deadly attacks in Sri Lanka tap into global anxiety about Christian-Muslim violence
Friends and relatives pray as they mourn Shaini, 13, who died as bomb blasts ripped through churches and luxury hotels on Easter, in Negombo, Sri Lanka,on April 22, 2019. (Athit Perawongmetha/Reuters)

By Michelle Boorstein andSarah Pulliam BaileyApril 22 at 7:37 PM

The Easter attacks in Sri Lanka, a Buddhist-majority country not known for religious violence or intolerance, are tapping into global worries about safety.

Experts who study long-term trends of religious intolerance and violence disagree, however, on whether things are getting worse, better or generally have remained level.

Even so, religious leaders say the attacks have come at a fragile time.

Religious institutions are losing power, and anger, tribalism and controversy boil away online every minute of the day. It’s hard to gauge or stop tensions from ballooning, they say, and the Sri Lanka attacks are a reminder of the risks.

Sri Lankan officials — with help from the FBI — Monday said the attacks were carried out by the National Thowheed Jamaath, a local Islamist militant group, with suspected international assistance.

“Here’s a nation that has pluralism and yet still had religious terrorism. It reminds you there isn’t one solution, no one safe place. It’s surprising,” said Ed Stetzer, who holds the Billy Graham Distinguished Chair for Church, Mission and Evangelism at Wheaton College and has trained evangelists across the world.

The attacks in Sri Lanka come as other incidents are fresh in memory. Those include the killings of 50 people at a New Zealand mosque last month, the October 2018 killing of 11 people at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh and the deaths of at least 45 people during twin Palm Sunday bombings in Egypt in April 2017.

In the United States, churches and mosques have begun adding security infrastructure to their places of worship. At the same time, there are high-level interfaith and pluralism efforts going on between Christian and Muslim leaders and groups that didn’t exist a generation ago. Those include the creation of international religious freedom ambassadors in several Western countries, said Rabbi David Saperstein, who held that position under President Barack Obama. They also include the Marrakesh Declaration, a January 2016 statement by hundreds of Muslim religious leaders worldwide committing to the rights of religious minorities in predominantly Muslim countries. The Southern Baptist Convention, the biggest Protestant U.S. denomination, has filed court briefs in support of religious freedom for Muslims.

But leaders and experts say the Easter bombings show that beyond the surface, relations — even in a place considered generally tolerant — are fragile.

Saperstein compared religious attacks to school shootings: “It becomes a pattern. Whether it really changes the way the world thinks about things? The urgency? I don’t know.” It’s hard to know, he said, why some tragedies and some issues ignite real emotion and drive for change and why others don’t — on any issue.

“For some reason, I feel the bombing in Sri Lanka was something that felt like a bit of a turn, and I’m not sure why,” said Steve Bezner, who pastors the large evangelical Houston Northwest Church in Texas and does Muslim-Christian dialogue work around the world. Maybe it was the high body count, he said Monday, or maybe lingering fear from previous attacks like the one at Sutherland Springs, Tex., where 26 people were killed in 2017 by a gunman. Bezner said that his church hosted a group of local Muslims Sunday for Easter and that he worried someone “would say something stupid” to them while they were there.

He compared Sri Lanka to the United States — a place where hypothetically the majority faith says it supports religious freedom, but “when it’s time to defend the minority, we haven’t always done so.”

Many advocates and officials with faith groups were circumspect when asked to comment Monday about political or religious implications, saying they didn’t want to inflame an already tense situation. Among them was Minhaj Hassan, spokesman for the group Islamic Relief USA. He said the group’s Sri Lanka staff will put out a combined statement with both Muslim and Christian local groups.

“Events like these are intended to stoke fear and division and negative feelings,” he said.

Evangelist Franklin Graham, who runs a global ministry called Samaritan’s Purse, said that the violence was surprising to him because Christians and Muslims often side together as religious minorities in the Buddhist-majority country.

“These types of attacks on Christians happen on a frequent basis,” he said, citing violence in countries such as Iraq and Indonesia. “No question, this will increase tensions between Muslims and Christians.”

Some observers, including Shaun Casey, director of Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs, fear the violence will feed a narrative that Christians are at war with Muslims.

“What explains violence in Sri Lanka probably doesn’t explain violence in Paris,” he said. “It’s an impulse to take a global assessment or generalizing that doesn’t help.”

Mathew Schmalz, a professor of religious studies at the College of the Holy Cross who studied Catholicism in Sri Lanka, said violence against both Muslims and Christians is a legitimate concern. “Persecution of religious minorities throughout the world is real.”

“A lot of this can be exploited to fuel theologies of ideologies of grievance. Both evangelical Christians and Catholics feel society is unwelcoming to them,” he said. “It’s unfortunate if Christians rely on a superficial understanding of victimhood. It plays into their own prejudices.”