Easter Sunday Massacre: Who, and What Next?

Easter Sunday Massacre: Who, and What Next?

First thought to be the work of a small group of terrorists retaliating for the earlier mosque shootings in New Zealand, evidence now suggests that ISIS played a major role in the April 21st terrorist attack on churches and hotels in Sri Lanka. This development, along with the long and complicated history of religious, ethnic, and political strife in Sri Lanka, creates a complex problem for peacemakers. This article by OMNIA President Rev. Dr. Shanta Premawardhana, unpacks some of that complex history, and suggests a way forward.

OMNIA IMPACT REPORT

OMNIA IMPACT REPORT

Our enthusiastic celebrations of the growth and progress of our Interfaith Peacemaker Teams in Sri Lanka have recently been tempered by the tragic news of Easter morning terrorists attacks on churches and hotels. We mourn the crushing loss of life and extend our heartfelt love and abiding support. We are especially mindful that our work, however difficult, is needed now more than ever.  Even in the midst of suffering, joy may be found and a higher purpose made clear.  It is in the spirit of that higher purpose that we offer to you our report on Interfaith Peacemaker Teams in Sri Lanka and invite you to join us in answering the call to peacebuilding.

Read Interview between WBEZ Worldview Host Jerome McDonnell and OMNIA President Shanta Premawardhana

On Tuesday, April 23, Dr. Premawardhana sat down with Jerome McDonnell, host of the nationally broadcast radio show “Worldview” in the WBEZ studio in Chicago. The topic: Understanding the Easter Attack on Churches and Hotels in Sri Lanka. Here is their conversation:

Jerome McDonnell

Welcome to WORLDVIEW from WBEZ. I’m Jerome McDonnell. There are plenty of developments on the attacks SUNDAY in Sri Lanka. ISIS claimed responsibility for the attacks via their news agency and Sri Lanka's prime minister and defense minister say Preliminary investigations indicate the bombings were retaliation for the attacks on mosques in Christchurch New Zealand. With me is Rev. Dr. Shanta Premawardhan and he is a pastor and he's an interfaith leader who is currently president of the OMNIA Institute for contextual leadership is obviously originally from Sri Lanka. And thank you for joining us.

 Dr. Premawardhana

Thank you it's a great honor to be here with you.

Jerome McDonnell

I wonder if you could tell us. I think we're all getting a crash course in the religions of Sri Lanka. Can you tell us about the Christian community where it came from and a little bit about how they interact with the other faiths.

 Dr. Premawardhana

For five centuries Sri Lanka was under colonial rule — Portuguese first, with that came Catholicism and then the Dutch. So Dutch Reformed churches came and then the British which meant that the Anglicans the Presbyterians, the Methodists, Baptists, they all came after that. So that's the kind of makeup of the Christian community so it's at least five centuries old in Sri Lanka. But there are indications that that could go back to 600 A.D.

Jerome McDonnell

Now and so there's the factions within the Christian community.

 Dr. Premawardhana

Yes, indeed. I mean like anywhere else you have the denominational differences that are there that which the colonial people brought to us which really don't have much salience in Sri Lanka. Because those fights are European fights not not necessarily Sri Lankan ones.

Jerome McDonnell

Well how do the the Buddhist community as the dominant religious community in Sri Lanka, do they look at Christianity, as an import from the colonial era?

Dr. Premawardhana

Indeed. And that's part of the struggle that we've had. During that four hundred and fifty three years of colonialism which is one of the longest in the world during that time. Buddhism was decimated. It was the Sinhala culture was attacked. And so when independence came in 1948 the immediate backlash was to go to a Sinhala Buddhist nationalism. So this was an ethno religious conflation which turned out to be rather a lethal mix. This is one of the reasons why we had a 26 year long war with the Tamil militant group that arose as a result of the discrimination that the Tamil community faced.

Jerome McDonnell

And the Tamils are of mixed faith background.

 Dr. Premawardhana

Correct. They are mostly Hindu but Christians are Sinhalese and Tamils most Sinhalese are Buddhists and Muslims are a specific often thought about as their own ethnic group. They are a mixture of various ethnicities that Islam came to Sri Lanka through Arab traders, mostly but that's — you think about Muslims as both ethnicity and religion.

Jerome McDonnell

On the ground, do the different faith communities get along.

 Dr. Premawardhana

Indeed we've got along for a very long time and occasionally we've had incursions we had we had violence conflicts. Over the period of since independence, We've not had I mean we've not had any serious problems because Sri Lanka guarantees religious freedom for all although it gives a primal place to Buddhism. So here's what happened in 1980s you had a movement of Christian missionaries who would come to Sri Lanka and would establish what are called evangelical or free churches that many Buddhists argued and challenged that they were using fraudulent means for conversion. That created a conflict. Occasionally you would find Buddhist mobs that would go and attack these churches or kill pastors or you know do things like that. That period lasted from. Somebody in the 80s until about the 2000s but more recently there has been worry about Muslims and the growth of Muslim Islamic conservatism and because of that just last year we had several attacks on Muslim villages by Buddhist mobs because there is a strain of rather virulent Buddhist violent extremism that has arisen in the country.

Jerome McDonnell

So this sounds pretty tense. It sounds like this would be a place where it would be bright for a play a group like ISIS.

 Dr. Premawardhana

Indeed. The tension is something that we lived with for the 26 years of war. Thankfully we've had 10 years of peace. In fact we are coming right up on the anniversary on May 9th of ten years. And so during that period there has been very little conflict except for the of the rise of the Buddhist violent extremist groups that have attacked Muslim communities — not so much Christians during this period.

Jerome McDonnell

So is there active interreligious dialogue efforts that go on in Sri Lanka that are successful.

 Dr. Premawardhana

Yes indeed. There are lots of interreligious dialogue work going on. In fact there are many organizations that promote interreligious dialogue and religious leaders themselves come together for conversation and relationship building. Your question, ‘are they successful’ Is an interesting one and that is because for the longest time and I've been involved in interreligious dialogue around the world for a long time. Much of the interreligious dialogue happens at a rarefied atmosphere where religious leaders come together and have deep conversations about various points of theological connection. Those are very good and helpful except that they don't always translate to what's going on on the ground. And so how successful are these is a question. What is interesting is the rising of a new grassroots movement of what is called Interfaith Peacemaker Teams where Buddhists, Christians, Muslims, and Hindus come together in villages where they learn how to collaborate with each other on issues that arise directly from the ground.

Jerome McDonnell

All right so that sounds very promising but at the same time you just need a handful of people who want to go the other direction and and all your efforts are shot basically and so is there a way you know. Are we ever going to succeed with this. We're watching the whole planet go through virtually the same thing at the same time.

 Dr. Premawardhana

Unfortunately you're right about that and that you know in this situation it was apparently a very small group of people who created all of this havoc. And so as long as there are crazy people in this world who would who would want to do that there's really very little ways we have of stopping that. However the large numbers of the mainstream of all our religions have theologies. I use the word advisedly Buddhist don't have a theology but a philosophy for example. However their philosophies have to do with exclusivity and superiority. Those two aspects come into play and therefore you don't want to create relationships with others because after all if “my way” is the only right way why would I relate to you or why my way is superior than yours why would I relate to you? Deconstructing that kind of what we call top down or received theology is the primary work that we are now engaged in doing and lifting up a “ground-up” or a contextual theology which really begins our work with the real questions that real people ask in their communities. That's — if that is the starting point then Muslims and Hindus and Christians and Buddhists can actually work together on things that matter.

Jerome McDonnell

I'm talking with Shantha Premawardhana and he is a pastor and interfaith leader who is currently present the president of the OMNIA Institute for Contextual Leadership is originally from Sri Lanka. Is there a problem politically that we need to address as long. And if the theological gets addressed that that's significant but we seem to be mobilizing people by their faith nowadays you know our president's doing it the president of India and you know that leaders in Sri Lanka do it. Everyone does this and it seems to have a really negative effect.

 Dr. Premawardhana

Authoritarian leaders have discovered the power of religion. That's really what's going on. I think we need to be sure that we all of us on on the more mainstream middle begin to understand that religion has a great deal of power because they are organized people. They meet once a week and in small groups of 20, or twenty thousand and one person gets up in front of them and says this is how you should behave or how you should live and they collect money. All of those are ingredients that go to build power. So the power of the religious community should not be underestimated and authoritarian leaders today are making use of that. We who are on the other side who want peace and want to work for justice have rarely taken that peace into serious consideration. And that's because religions are divided all over the place. And because religions are divided that only benefits the authoritarian leaders. If we come together then we don't allow for that kind of injustice to take place in our world.

Jerome McDonnell

Right now there it seems like every time there is some attack like this in this country the Christian right looks at this and says Look Christians are under attack all over the world we are the persecuted ones and there seems to be a persecution rivalry among the religions that they are all the persecuted ones. And to some extent it's true. I mean there are certainly people getting attacked on sectarian basis all over the planet for and without them in all different religions. How do you get away from the the negative aspects of that persecution complex.

Dr. Premawardhana

That's a tough one. It is true that that Christians are being persecuted around the world. And that is happening primarily in places where Christians are in the minority but it is also true that Muslims and other religious people, Buddhists, Hindus, all of them Jews, are being attacked. Anti-Semitism is a rising phenomenon in the world as well as Islamophobia. So the question you ask about what's going on in the US with the fascination about Christian persecution, I think you had to be careful to nuance that by helping people understand that the Christian majority in the United States are in no way a persecuted group of people. We are the ones who have the power I speak myself as a Christian. We are the ones who have power in this country. But there are Christians in different parts of the world who don't have that and are therefore persecuted. We should take particular care not to confuse the two things and not just Christians but Muslims Jews Hindus Buddhists all of those groups that cannot express their religious freedom in a way that is of free and just in their communities. We need to we need to be particularly conscious of that question. So is there some way that all these different faiths can speak together when something happens to any one of them. It seems like there almost needs to be a constant unified voice instead of you know you have to apologize for what your faith group did or whatever it kind of goes on. I think it is very important to recognize that this attack was done by a small group of radical Muslims down not Muslims. People who do this who are not submitting themselves to God which is what Muslim stands for are not really Muslims in some sense of the word. But the but the majority of the Muslim community stands together with all of the others the Christians the Hindus the Buddhists in condemning these and coming together and and working together to find the right solution. So for example in Sri Lanka we had religious leaders coming out and speaking out asking people to be calm in this situation not to take the law into their own hands which some people would want to do and then calling on the government, holding the government accountable for the for the lapse that that they apparently had adequate information about this happening 10 days ago. And some say even in January they had this kind of information going to them and didn't do anything about it. Therefore the government needs to be held accountable. It's the religious leaders who ought to take the primary responsibility for doing that.

Jerome McDonnell

Well what do you make of the connection with Christchurch and the attacks on the mosques in New Zealand. Is this if these people we've been planning this a long time apparently because it was a very well coordinated and they had so many targets and this was kind of an opportunistic sounding claim that this is a retaliation from.

 Dr. Premawardhana

Indeed. As you said various news outlets as well as the Sri Lankan government have claimed that New Zealand connection — that this is retaliation for that. Perhaps it is but as you said it just now it's more opportunistic, I would say. But we should all understand what we are doing right now is speculating about what's going on. And I don't want to do that. But we have few facts at this moment. What we do know is this — that ISIS may be trying to get a foothold on Asian countries and this goes all the way from Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, to Sri Lanka. There has been a growing Wahhabism in Sri Lanka that is pretty obvious in terms of people's piety and women's dress and and so on in Sri Lanka for the past several years. So the possibility that ISIS is trying to get a foothold in Sri Lanka is not farfetched but the fact of the matter is that that they have been working at this for much longer than March 15th when the Christchurch shooting took place. So this connection may be more opportunistic than we think. I think that ISIS or other international groups trying to get a foothold has a longer history than that.

Jerome McDonnell

Well we'll keep our eye on the news and we'll see about the developments. And thanks very much for joining us. Shanta Premawardhana. He's a pastor an interfaith leader who is currently president of OMNIA Institute for Contextual Leadership originally from Sri Lanka. Thanks for joining us and we'll talk again soon. Coming up after the break we are going to talk about the crisis in recycling. Stay tuned. I'm Jerome McDonnell you're listening to Worldview on WBEZ.



Terrorist Violence in Sri Lanka: A Statement from OMNIA

Terrorist Violence in Sri Lanka:  A Statement from OMNIA

Like you, we are heartbroken to hear of the brutal attacks directed at Christian worshippers and tourists on Easter Sunday in Sri Lanka.  Please read OMNIA's statement below and share with your colleagues, family, and friends.  Together we must embrace the conviction that love is stronger than hate and that peace is everyone's to build.  Please join us as we pray and work together to help heal Sri Lanka.