On Easter Sunday 2019 a small relatively unknown Sri Lankan Islamist group, National Thowheed Jamath, conducted a series of bombings targeting churches and hotels across Sri Lanka and killing more than 250 people, predominantly Christians. The BBC reports that on 21 April, the anniversary of the attacks was marked by the ringing of church bells but no public events, the result of a government curfew imposed to address the spread of COVID-19, which has claimed seven lives on the island.
Amid a nationwide two-minute silence in honour of the dead and wounded, the Archbishop of Colombo, Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, said in his anniversary message that while the church had “spiritually forgiven” its attackers, it continued to call for justice.
Justice remains elusive, with investigations ongoing in a country in which the need to confront past crimes and pursue forgiveness, healing and national reconciliation is more complex as a result of the legacy of a 30-year civil war characterised by serious internal political strife.
There is also the challenge of populist leaders seeking to mobilise religion for their own ends, nurturing an exclusive vision of Sri Lanka as a homogenous Buddhist state.
Sinhalese Buddhist nationalists have used the bombing to justify the anti-Muslim stance they have been propagating since 2012. Days after the bombings, Dilanthe Withange, a senior administrator for the Bodu Bala Sena, (BBS, Buddhist Power Force) a prominent Sinhalese Buddhist nationalist group, claimed: “We have been warning for years that Muslim extremists are a danger to national security… Blood is on the government’s hands for ignoring the radicalization of Islam.”
In the immediate aftermath of the bombings, Islamic leaders came out and condemned the attacks, with many denying the bombers a religious burial, making it clear to Sri Lanka’s Muslim community that such violence in the name of religion was unacceptable. Some Mosques leaders even stopped broadcasting prayer calls over loudspeakers to avoid offending mourners.
“Our religious beliefs could not be more different from the Islamic State’s… But now everyone is looking at us as if we were the ones who bombed the churches.”
Despite this, there were a number of reprisals targeting the Muslim population of Sri Lanka, the perpetrators a mixture of Christians and Sinhalese Buddhists. In Negombo, Christian men smashed windows and broke down doors before dragging people into the street, punching and threatening to kill them. In Bandaragama, an hour and a half’s drive south from Colombo, Muslim businessman Mohamed Iqbal’s shoe shop was broken into and burned out on Easter Sunday evening, just several hours after the bombings. Mr. Iqbal’s son told the New York Times: “Our religious beliefs could not be more different from the Islamic State’s… But now everyone is looking at us as if we were the ones who bombed the churches.”
Violence swept across Sri Lanka’s North Western Province in particular. In Hettipola, Panduwasnuwara, on 13 May, more than 80 shops, houses and buildings owned by Muslims were damaged, including the central Mosque, Masjid Al Huda. That same day, in Puttalam district, a Muslim man was killed by a mob, causing a two day nationwide curfew to be implemented, with the North Western Province initially being placed under an indefinite curfew which was relaxed after four days. During this violence there were many accusations of police complicity and of outsiders being bussed into local communities to cause trouble.
From 22 April, then President Sirisena, declared a month-long state of emergency which was subsequently extended four times, ending on 22 August. As part of the emergency measures a ban on full face coverings was introduced; while the niqab or burka were not specifically mentioned, they were the de facto target and helped reinforce narratives equating Islam with terrorism. The UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief visited Sri Lanka in August 2019 and noted that mosques and madrasas were being raided and Qur’anic and other Islamic texts, mainly in Arabic, were confiscated as ‘radical’ material.
In November 2019’s presidential elections, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, representing the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), the Sinhalese-Buddhist Nationalist Party, became the country’s eighth president with just over 52% of the vote. Minorities were apprehensive over what a victory for the SLPP would mean for them, which was reflected in the fact that Gotabaya’s votes came almost exclusively from Sinhalese Buddhists as he received campaign backing from prominent nationalist monks who advocate for stronger controls on the countries Muslim population.
Using national security fears as a launchpad, Gotabaya and the SLPP vowed to take a tough stance on terrorism and to bring stability to Sri Lanka, but has since shown his prioritising of Sinhalese Buddhists. He soon dropped the singing of the Tamil language version of the national anthem for Independence Day and pardoned Sunil Rathnayake, a former Army Staff Sergeant convicted of murdering several Tamil civilians, on 26 March 2020.
Elected for a five year term, Gotabaya hoped to capitalise on both his political momentum and the emotive anniversary of the Easter Sunday Bombings by calling parliamentary elections for 25 April, just four days after the first anniversary. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, these have been postponed to 20 June.
Victory for the SLPP in the elections would give the party a mandate to pursue a vision of Sri Lanka as a Buddhist-only nation and defend the religion’s constitutionally granted ‘foremost place’ in society.
Whether the spirit of forgiveness and reflection, exemplified in Cardinal Ranjith’s statement, will overcome attempts to use the memory of the bombings to further the creation of an exclusive national identity is an open question. The answer will mean a great deal to the future of Sri Lanka’s Christian and Muslim minority communities.
By CSW’s Advocacy and Projects Officer