The Easter Sunday attacks in Sri Lanka signaled the emergence of a new threat to the country's Christians. While in the past, extremist Buddhist and Hindu elements have carried out acts of intimidation and violence against churches in the country; attacks by radical Islamists on Christians were an unheard phenomenon. Worryingly, while marking the arrival of a new threat, it is also beleived that the Easter attacks could be a precursor for increased pressures for Christians from more familiar sources.
On 21 April, suicide bombers carried out a series of highly coordinated attacks on three Christian churches and three luxury hotels in different parts of the country. Officials blamed two local groups—National Thowheeth Jama’ath and Jammiyathul Millathu Ibrahim for the attacks. The explosions left more than 250 dead and 500 injured. Following the attacks, the Islamic State (IS) claimed responsibility for the deadly bombings, a first on Sri Lankan soil.
The proliferation of religious extremism
For many years, extremist Buddhist groups such as the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), Sinhala Ravaya, and the Mahason Balakya have carried out targeted campaigns of hate and violence against Sri Lanka’s Muslims and Christians. For instance, mobs instigated by extremist groups attacked mosques, Muslim homes and shops in violent riots in Aluthgama in 2014 and Kandy in 2018. Notably, the rhetoric of these groups, perpetuated mostly through social media, included warnings to the threat posed by radical Islamist elements operating in the country. The Easter attacks have, therefore, served as a redeeming event for these groups, whose allegations were mostly rejected by the wider community, including rights groups and government officials.
Sri Lanka is religiously diverse. According to the 2012 census, more than 70 percent of Sri Lanka’s population of 20.8 million is Buddhist. Catholics are about 6 percent, Muslims a little less than 10 percent and Hindus around 13 percent. Protestant Christians form 1 percent of the population.
While Buddhist extremists have largely focused their attention on Sri Lanka’s minority Muslims, Protestant Christians, who form around one percent of the population, have faced the brunt of the attacks targeting the Christian community. This has included widespread hostile rhetoric that Christians are unethically converting Buddhists in villages. The National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka (NCEASL), the largest representative body for evangelical Christians in the country, documented 88 incidents of religious liberty violations against Christians in 2018 and more than 40 incidents so far this year.
In the larger scheme of affairs, hostilities from Buddhist extremist groups have been driven by the perceived threat posed by religious minorities toward the Sinhala-Buddhist hegemony in the country. In turn, by portraying Buddhists as vulnerable and in need of protection, the hegemonic actions of Buddhist groups have been validated.
With regard to the radical Islamist threat, with the IS loosing its Caliphate in Syria and Iraq and shifting its attention to South and South East Asia, it appears that the radical Islamist outfit is now pursuing a global insurgency model. The strategy, as such, appears to be one going beyond the establishment of the Islamic State in the Middle East and East Asia and expanding the battlefield to new fronts such as Sri Lanka. This corroborates Sri Lankan intelligence reports indicating the existence of radical Islamist cells in the country comprising returning IS militants from Syria and Iraq. Moreover, investigations have also revealed that some of the Easter Sunday attackers were from affluent families and had studied overseas. This indicates the need for a parallel war on terror as well as ideology in the battle against the spread of Salafi-jihadi extremism.
In the predominantly Hindu areas of Eastern Sri Lanka, radical Hindu groups, inspired by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) in India, have also emerged, targeting evangelical Christians in organized campaigns of violence. Following the Easter attacks, it is also reported that local Hindu extremist groups in the East have intensified hostile rhetoric against Christians, vowing for their destruction in the region. Moreover, reports have also indicated that a parliamentarian connected to the leading Tamil political alliance in the country, has tacitly supported and empowered Hindu extremists in the East.
Regarding the politics behind Buddhist extremism, groups such as the BBS have long been identified with factions loyal to former President Mahinda Rajapaksa. For instance, the impunity enjoyed by these groups during the Rajapaksa regime gave rise to widespread suspicion that the then government was clandestinely sponsoring Buddhist extremism. With provincial and presidential elections due in the coming year, the upcoming period is a crucial one for Sri Lanka. The state of current political tides, unsurprisingly, indicates that factions supporting Mr Mahinda Rajapaksa are tipped to gain power at the provincial level. Moreover, Mr Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, the brother of Mahinda Rajapaksa and former Defense Secretary has already declared candidacy for the upcoming presidential election as well. Mr Gotabaya Rajapaksa, all though has denied publicly any affiliation to the group, has been identified as a supporter of the BBS, a Buddhist extremist outfit similar in function and ideology to the 969 movement in Myanmar. Viewed as a defense expert, the current crisis has only served in increasing the public appeal of the former Defense Secretary.
Following the Easter Sunday attacks, Christians continue to be vulnerable to mass-scale violence, as radical Islamist elements have vowed to persist with attacks on Christian churches. This is a cause for concern. However, it is also likely that as Christians prepare for this new threat, existing pressures from familiar frontiers may gather impetus as well. Accordingly, with the credibility gained during this period, Buddhist extremist elements that now claim to have been the first to warn of such a threat in the country is likely to step up efforts to monitor, intimidate, and harass religious minorities with renewed vigour and support. This coupled with the possibility of the return to power of pro-Rajapaksa factions, in the not-so-distant future -- the situation facing minority Christians appears to be a challenging one. Moreover, in the immediate period, efforts to closely observe and crackdown on extremism by the government could also have an indirect bearing on evangelical churches in rural areas. Evangelicals, who lack State recognition, have long been victims of violence at the hands of extremist groups and discrimination by local authorities.
Combating the problem of religious extremism
How can the future of Sri Lanka’s Christian community be secured? In light of the recent events, it is important for the government to swiftly address the radical Islamist threat by taking proactive measures to dismantle any existing terror network and combat the threat of Salafi-jihadi ideology in the country. This would include systematic, cross-sector efforts to deradicalize youth in the clutches of extremist Islamist ideology and decisive action to curb the spread of extremist teaching.
The potency of Buddhist, Hindu, and Islamist extremism in Sri Lanka has meant that the situation facing Christians has increased in complexity. It is imperative, therefore, for the government to take strong measures to clamp down on acts of religious extremism – including those on social media and other online platforms. Further, while focusing on the radical Islamist threat, the government should also not lose sight of extremist Buddhist groups who had gone silent following the riots in Kandy, and Hindu extremist groups who have become more vociferous in the East of Sri Lanka. It is also in the interest of Sri Lanka’s public to urge its ruling parties to move away from politics along religious lines and divorce itself from extremist religious outfits, as it heads into an election period.
Concerning the church in Sri Lanka, proactive responses to the current crisis are the need of the hour. Accordingly, training and equipping churches to face these new threats, stepping up advocacy work for policy change and preventing violence through early-warning and response measures are key in ensuring a safer space for Christians in Sri Lanka’s increasingly hostile socio-religious landscape. Still more, the current crisis has also placed the onus the National church to reassess security measures and take steps to safeguard local churches in the light of growing aggression from extremist groups.
World Evangelical Alliance (WEA) Religious Liberty Commission (RLC) sponsors this WEA-RLC Research & Analysis Report to help individuals and groups pray for and act on religious liberty issues around the world. WEA has a consultative status with the UN Economic and Social Council.
This report was researched and written by José Henriques, and moderated by the WEA-RLC Executive Director, Godfrey Yogarajah. It can be used for distribution or publication with attribution to WEA-RLC.