Thoughts and Prayers: The Sri Lanka Bombing Dossier

Sri Lankan security forces secure the area around St. Anthony's Shrine after an explosion hit St Anthony's Church in Kochchikade on April 21, 2019 in Colombo, Sri Lanka.

Source Getty

Why you should care

Because places of worship are under attack.

What to know

What Happened?

Eight blasts ripped through churches and high-end hotels on Easter Sunday in Sri Lanka’s capital Colombo, its suburb Negombo and the eastern city of Batticaloa, leaving at least 290 people dead and more than 500 injured. The dead include at least 35 foreigners. This was the worst terrorist attack the island nation has suffered since the 2009 end of a brutal three-decade-long civil war against Tamil rebels. 

Why Does It Matter? 

Sunday’s Sri Lankan blasts were the latest in a spurt of attacks against places of worship around the world. In January, Open Doors, a Christian advocacy group, revealed a 14 percent increase in persecution of Christians worldwide between 2017 and 2018, impacting a whopping 245 million people. Just last month, a man with links to white supremacist groups shot dead 50 people at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. In recent weeks, three African American churches in Louisiana were set on fire, and a suspect has been charged with hate crimes. While the cause of last week’s Notre Dame Cathedral disaster was likely accidental, France alone has seen an uptick of vandalization and arson against Christian churches and symbols in recent years. Between 2017 and 2018, there was a 17 percent increase in such attacks in France. Following the bomb attacks, Sri Lankan authorities had by Monday evening arrested 24. No group has so far claimed responsibility but one Sri Lankan government minister said authorities suspected the National Thowheeth Jama’ath (NTJ), a local Islamist group previously known only for defacing Buddhist shrines.

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Security forces inspect the scene after a blast targeting The Kingsbury hotel in Colombo, Sri Lanka.

Source Chamila Karunarathne/Anadolu Agency/Getty

Politically speaking, Sunday’s violence will likely have a knock-on effect. Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena sacked Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe late last year. Sirisena named his predecessor, Mahinda Rajapaksa  — known for crushing the Tamil insurgency in 2009 — as Wickremesinghe’s replacement, but critics decried the move as unconstitutional. A standoff ensued, resulting in Wickremesinghe’s reappointment in December, much to Sirisena’s chagrin. Today’s attacks are likely to bolster Rajapaksa’s standing, thanks to his tough-on-terror reputation, and some predict that today’s attacks will lead to opposition calls for a more autocratic style of governance. Any such move will rile up both China and India, who support opposing sides in Sri Lankan politics; Beijing sides with Rajapaksa while India is closer to Wickremesinghe.

 

How to Think About It

A New War? At the height of Sri Lanka’s civil war, the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam — fighting for a separate Tamil homeland — controlled a third of the country’s territory. But that war largely avoided religious divisions in Sri Lanka’s multi-faith society, where 7 percent of the population is Christian, 10 percent Muslim, 12 percent Hindu and 71 percent Buddhist. The country has witnessed smaller attacks by militant Buddhist groups against religious minorities. But Sri Lanka has never before seen targeted strikes against places of religious worship on this scale. 

Missing the Signals The bombings raise fresh questions about whether security agencies around the world, for many years focused on the ISIS threat, are missing red flags emerging from other sources that could help them stop attacks against places of religious worship. News agency AFP reported that it had seen an intelligence report issued by Sri Lanka’s police chief Pujuth Jayasundara on April 11 that warned that the NTJ was planning to attack churches and the Indian High Commission. This inability to protect churches even after a warning follows New Zealand’s failure to recognize the threat posed by the Christchurch attack suspect, who had posted threats against Muslims online. A man who shot 11 worshippers dead at a Pittsburgh synagogue last October had also posted vitriolic anti-Semitic messages online before his attack.    

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Sri Lankan soldiers look inside the St Sebastian’s Church at Katuwapitiya in Negombo after a bomb blast on Easter.

Source Getty

Setback for Tourist Paradise  Since the end of the war a decade ago, Sri Lanka’s economy has doubled in size, from $42 billion to $87 billion, and the country’s pristine beaches, tea plantations and rich culture have drawn millions of visitors. The average number of foreign tourists visiting Sri Lanka per month has increased five-fold, from 50,000 in 2009 to 250,000 in 2018. The country has South Asia’s highest per capita income, and tourism contributes more than 11 percent of Sri Lanka’s annual GDP. Following Sunday’s terror attacks — especially because the bombs targeted popular hotels and left many foreigners dead — the country’s tourism sector is expected to take a hit. That, in turn, threatens to stall Sri Lanka’s efforts to move beyond the violence of its past. 

What To Read 

Pope Francis Denounces ‘Cruel Violence’ of Sri Lanka Easter Bombings in WSJ

Pope: “I entrust to the Lord those who have tragically died and pray for the wounded and all those who suffer as a result of this dramatic event.”

Hundreds Dead in Multiple Blasts in Sri Lanka: What We Know So Far in Times of India 

Sri Lanka’s police chief had made a nationwide alert 10 days ago that suicide bombers planned to hit “prominent churches” and the “Indian High Commission in Colombo.”

What To Watch

Sri Lanka Blasts: More Than 200 dead in Bombings Across Country CNN via YouTube

“This is a tough time for Christians, and a tough time, this week, for the [Catholic] church.”

Sri Lanka Police Arrest Suspects in Easter Bomb Attacks DW News via YouTube

Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe: “I see this as a major crisis that will lead the country and its economy towards instability.”

What to Say at the Watercooler

Network Down Sri Lankan authorities blocked social media networks in the wake of Sunday’s attacks — including Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, YouTube, Snapchat and Viber, according to web monitoring services. Government officials said they feared that hate speech and misinformation about the attacks could spark more violence. Sri Lanka’s government shut down social networks last year during a spate of anti-Muslim riots and lynchings. India blocked Facebook when riots broke out in 2012. Leaders in Iran and Turkey have shut down social networks in recent years as well, but in the face of political demonstrations and unrest. Given broad “fake news” concerns and increasing skepticism of the services, blocking social networks will likely become more common in response to future violence. 

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