AN ANGLICAN congregation in Sri Lanka had the narrowest of escapes from being bombed on Easter Day.
On a normal Sunday, at Christ Church, Matale, near Kandy, there would be 200-250 people at its main service at 8 a.m. But on Easter morning, because of the Easter Eve vigil, the service time was put back to 8.30 a.m.
An elderly worshipper reported that she had been accosted outside the church at 7.40 a.m. by a Muslim woman who was surprised at finding the church empty. The woman, wearing a scarf and a large robe, was carrying an open umbrella even though it was neither raining or sunny. Its purpose is thought to have been to shield herself from the CCTV camera on the school next door.
Having asked about the service, the suspected bomber then attempted repeatedly to persuade the churchwoman to go with her to “where a friend is waiting” in a car, pulling on her arm, and wanting the woman to conduct them to the church. All the while, the suspect was talking on her mobile phone. The churchwoman finally tugged herself free, and the suspect left.
The priest, Brother Michael Saminathan SSF, said that a sexton had reported that, in December, two young Muslim men had entered the church, asking about services. The sexton had given them a Bible and told them the service times. The priest believes that many of the larger churches in Sri Lanka were scoped in this way.
The number of dead from the bombs that did go off — in three churches, three hotels, a private home, and a location near the zoo — has been revised by the authorities as “at least 253”. Earlier, higher estimates were blamed on confusion caused at the bomb sites.
The most casualties were at St Sebastian’s, Negombo, where about 110 people were killed and more than twice that number were injured (News, 26 April).
Church services in Sri Lanka were cancelled on Low Sunday, after warnings from the security forces. Reports suggest that up to a dozen potential suicide bombers remain at large. Mosques were also advised to cancel Friday prayers.
Brother Michael said that criticism of the Sri Lankan government was increasing, as it has emerged that the Indian secret service passed on detailed information about the bombers’ intentions on several occasions before they took place, including a final warning ten minutes before the first bomb was exploded.
The President of Sri Lanka, Maithripala Sirisena, has since announced a ban on all face coverings, including veils and burkas, in public spaces in the country, “to ensure national security”.
Anglicans have expressed concern that Sri Lankan Muslims are being further isolated from society, and are vulnerable to hate crime. The Bishop of Kurunagala, the Rt Revd Keerthisiri Fernando, said this week that Muslims had been isolated in Sri Lankan society because, unlike the other world religions in the country, such as Buddhism and Christianity, their faith was entwined with their ethnic identity.
“This has created space for many believers of the Islamic faith to get isolated in the Sri Lankan society,” he said. “Now it is very clear that this isolation has been enabling international radical Islamic groups to influence a tiny minority of Sri Lankan Muslims, even to the extent of training suicide bombers.”
In this context, he said, “it is necessary for other Sri Lankans to integrate into Muslim communities to promote peace and harmony with a sound understanding. It is the responsibility of Sri Lankan Muslims to take every step to Sri Lankanise their activities by retaining their Islamic identity.”
Dr Sanjee Perera, a Sri Lankan research fellow at the University of Birmingham, agreed that extremists wanted “to polarise communities, to isolate Muslim communities from their socio-political landscape, aggravate Islamophobia, and destroy any sympathy for them”.
Dr Perera, who left Sri Lanka in the 1990s during the civil war, has written about her experience on social media in light of the recent attacks. “The war didn’t spare us as we crouched beneath our elegant Victorian desks, pencils in our mouth, when the glass walls shattered around us and the ceiling came crashing down. That is when we learned that terror, hate, violence, and death knew no race or religion; that hate doesn’t overcome hate, and no one gets a pass card from terror attacks based on race, religion, blue blood, or bank balance.”
The risk was that Muslims would be further isolated from society, and vulnerable to hostility and violence. She said: “Pray for Muslim communities and mosques that have openly spoken against ISIS, the Caliphate and other extremist organisations, and opened their mosques for Christians to pray in. They’re abused on all sides and are just as vulnerable to attack.”
Bishop Fernando, in a joint letter with the Bishop of Colombo, the Rt Revd Dhiloraj Canagasabey, called for calm, forgiveness, and reconciliation. “We call upon the government to clamp down firmly on all forms of extremism, on those who teach, propagate, and encourage it, while reaching out and engaging with the wider Muslim community with understanding and reassurance.
“This is a long process of combating the ideologies of fanaticism, religious intolerance, and of hate: a battle that has to be won in the hearts of people.
“We therefore request all our congregations to engage positively with all communities in this country, especially with the Muslim community, who find themselves torn and made fearful by these actions of a tiny minority. The most effective manner to eradicate extremism will be continuous dialogue with others and the good will shared between all communities. It is a test of our faith to forgive, reconcile, and commit to coexistence.”