Wounds of a bitter ethno-religious war had been healing well
At least 290 people were killed and more than 500 wounded when a series of coordinated bomb attacks were launched against churches, luxury hotels and other areas two days’ ago, in what was Sri Lanka’s worse terrorist attack since the civil war ended a decade ago.
The bombings were carried out on Easter Sunday, a day when Christians worldwide gather in churches to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus.
The explosions ripped through five churches and three luxury hotels in the capital Colombo and the eastern town of Batticaloa, shattering an atmosphere of joyful celebration.
The coordinated attacks were as cruel as they were calculated, targeted to cause the maximum loss of life in churches packed with people worshipping the symbol of hope and life.
Authorities have yet to identify the identity of the bombers and their political or terrorist affiliations.
It would be dangerous to speculate on those identities, given that Sri Lanka has only recently emerged from decades of separatist insurgency that pitted the mainly Hindu Tamil population against the predominantly Buddhist state.
The attacks, though, followed two decades of deadly international terrorist violence.
In January, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) claimed responsibility for an attack on a church in the Philippines that killed more than 20 people. Last May, ISIS also took credit for suicide bombings on three churches in Indonesia that killed 12 and injured dozens more. The group also claimed responsibility for the killing of 49 people gathered for mass in two churches in Egypt in 2017.
The previous decade meanwhile saw an offshoot of al-Qaeda kill 58 Iraqi Christians at a church in Baghdad during a Sunday service in 2010. Four years earlier, al-Qaeda in Iraq killed nearly 60 people when it attacked three hotels in Amman, Jordan.
In 2008, Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Tayyiba attacked two luxury hotels in Mumbai – the Taj and the Oberoi – killing a total of 164 people.
While five of the nine targets in Sri Lanka were Catholic churches, the fact that the attackers also hit hotels suggests they had no qualms about taking the lives of people of all faiths.
In short, the attackers aimed to sow terror across a country still healing from the horrific violence of war.
The bloody civil war ended a decade ago and a bitter divide still lingers in its aftermath. Yet we cannot rule out the possibility that Sunday’s attacks were carried out by “outside” elements.
Indeed the fabric of Sri Lanka’s society remained largely intact in the wake of the war. The Buddhist Sinhalese remain the ruling majority, but the Hindu, Muslim and Christian minorities all have a place in this country they also called home.
While the state has yet to arrive at a more just and equitable distribution of power, all parties and stakeholders now understand that race relations are something that have to be constantly managed.
As such the Easter Sunday attacks were nothing less than heartbreaking, a shocking blow to the efforts of a nation working towards a lasting peace that addresses longstanding grievances of the Tamil minority and ensures that other religious minorities are not marginalised.
However, Sunday’s atrocities in Sri Lanka are reverberating far beyond the global Catholic community. The pain is being felt everywhere, along with fear that this vicious act will spawn more hatred and violence.
Christians are taught that, even in the harshest of times, hope must endure. In a time like this, that message must not be confined to the followers of just one faith. If we despair in the face of terror, we lose the humanity that binds us together.