The cowardly attacks in Sri Lanka came just a month after deadly attacks by a white supremacist on two mosques in Christchurch in New Zealand as people gathered for Friday prayers. As the citizens of Christchurch will testify, the shock and anguish of the death of countless of innocent people leave scars on communities that are difficult to heal.
The orchestration of both of the attacks was clearly carried out with the aim of causing maximum casualties whilst people had gathered at their respective places of worship in large groups.
The target of the Sri Lankan attacks was three churches in Negombo, Batticaloa and Colombo’s Kochchikade district, including the historic Catholic Church of St. Anthony’s Shrine. Blasts also left a devastating trail at the Shangri-La, Kingsbury and Cinnamon Grand hotels in the capital.
All of the bombers were Sri Lankan citizens, but authorities suspect high-probability of foreign links and support.
Asia and the Middle East has a rich tapestry of cultures, ethnicities and religions, and coexistence has been prevalent for hundreds of years in the region. In the Middle East, Christians have lived peacefully among Muslims for hundreds of years. However, over the past decade or so, continued attacks on religious minorities, especially Christians, has increased division with the principle of acceptance and tolerance on the decline.
In Iraq, a mass exodus of Christians has been commonplace since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003 due waves of violent sectarianism that damaged the social fabric of the country.
Fate of Christians and religious minorities such as the Yazidis worsened as Daesh took power in Syria and Iraq. Churches and non-Islamic places of worship that stood for hundreds of years were all of a sudden attacked, with many completely destroyed, and thousands of innocent victims were brutally killed for their beliefs.
The killing of thousands of Christians and Yazidis led to wide fear of practicing one’s faith and mass displacement of people from their ancestral homes. The changing religious makeup of communities and the threat to religious diversity made those countries culturally and socially weaker.
A common misconception, especially with the flawed view of Islam in some Western circles is to link terrorism and religion with damaging terms such as “Islamic terrorism.” Quite simply, terror has no religion. Such cowardly and inhumane perpetrators of violence and terror should not be used to tarnish any religion.
Often overlooked is the fact that the biggest victims of terror attacks are Muslim themselves.
One of the principles of Islam is that there is no compulsion in religion. Therefore, people should be free to practice their faith and in their own way without feeling retribution or harm.
U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May stressed whilst condemning the Sri Lankan attacks, “we must stand together to make sure that no one should ever have to practice their faith in fear.”
Coexistence of cultures, religious and ethnicities is vital for stability and peace but also a source of the richness of a nation.
The aim of the attacks in Sri Lanka, New Zealand and elsewhere is to sow discord, hatred and vicious cycles of revenge and violence.
As Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan underlined in response to the Easter attacks, these attacks are an attack on all humanity.
It is vital that attacks on any Muslim or Christian places of worship see a joint and consistent response across Western and Middle Eastern governments. There must be no differentiation of such terror attacks. Local governments must do whatever they can to reject religious hatred and promote co-existence and peace.
The actions of New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in the aftermath of the mosque bombings to strongly underline that New Zealand was home for all of its citizens regardless of religion, as well as taking tangible action by changing gun ownership laws, helped to heal a community at a sensitive time.
As for Sri Lanka, it is no stranger to civil war and violence but the attacks on Sunday were the biggest since the end of the civil war in 2009.
Sri Lanka is also home to a number of different religions and ethnicities. Theravada Buddhism, the biggest religious group, makes up approximately 70.2 percent of the population with 9.7 percent Muslims and 7.4 percent Christians.
Peace and stability has largely held since 2009 but there has been some sporadic violence, for example, in 2018 the majority Buddhist Sinhala community attacked mosques and Muslim properties.
The government has blamed little known local “Jihadist” group, National Thowheed Jamath, for the Easter attacks. Of greater concern to Sri Lankan officials is how they failed to take heed on the intelligence warning of the Easter attacks two weeks before.
National Thowheed Jamath’s intention is clearly to provoke revenge attacks and thus reignite civil war in the country.
However, Muslim groups were quick to condemn the attacks and distance themselves from the actions of the terrorist group.
The Muslim Council of Sri Lanka, whilst condemning the attack, stated it mourned the loss of innocent people in the blasts by extremists who seek to divide religious and ethnic groups.
Meanwhile, the All Ceylon Jammiyyathul Ulama, a body of Muslim clerics, said targeting Christian places of worship could not be accepted.
Rather than divide communities, such terror attacks must bring the nation closer together and nullify the wishes of the terrorists.
* U.K.-based Middle East analyst