Easter Sunday Massacre: Who, and What Next?

On 21 April 2019, Easter Sunday, three churches in Sri Lanka and three luxury hotels were attacked in a series of coordinated terrorist suicide bombings that left 253 persons dead and hundreds more wounded. 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. 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 unpacks some of that complex history, and suggests how OMNIA’s Interfaith Peacemaker Teams are essential building a lasting peace in Sri Lanka.

by Shanta Premawardhana

The Easter Sunday bombings in Sri Lanka marked the beginning of a new chapter in religious conflict. Sri Lankans are left bewildered, wracked by grief, anger and deep anxiety, worried that this was only the opening salvo of much greater mayhem to come. Sri Lankan Muslims, by and large a peaceful community, are in immediate danger of reprisals, and are in hiding. It was only a little over a year ago that extremist Sinhala-Buddhist mobs attacked many Muslim villages, burning mosques, businesses and homes, as well as killing and injuring many. 

It was also just one year ago that the OMNIA Institute for Contextual Leadership concluded its training of clergy and lay religious leaders in Kandy, with the goal of building Interfaith Peacemaker Teams.  Ironically, within days of OMNIA’s training, violence erupted. Mosques and Muslim businesses were burned, and people were killed or injured as mobs incited by extremist Buddhist monks rampaged across several nearby Muslim villages. There was hardly any time for the participants to organize themselves into Interfaith Peacemaker Teams (IPTs) as the training intended. “We should have had this training earlier,” said one, “and had it more frequently, so we would have a much larger group trained,” recognizing the massive scope of the relief work that awaited them.  Since then, OMNIA has doubled down on its commitment of training clergy and lay religious leaders in Sri Lanka. To date about 200 Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim and Christian leaders have launched 14 Interfaith Peacemaker Teams in the North and East of the country (areas ravaged by the 26 year-long war), including the Kandy district where last year’s violence took place.

Putting the Violence in Context

Sri Lanka’s interreligious challenges must be viewed in the context of 453 years of colonial history, which threatened to decimate Buddhism and local cultures. The immediate aftermath of independence in 1948 resulted in a nationalism which conflated Sinhala ethnic and Buddhist religious identities in the moniker Sinhala-Buddhist. This categorization, which carried with it political power, regrettably excluded Sinhala Christians, Tamil Hindus, Tamil Christians and Muslims, among others. Sinhala-Buddhist anxieties, particularly as a new wave of Christian evangelistic activity started in the 1970s and 80s, and as the ultra-conservative Wahhabi influence increased in the Muslim community, resulted in periodic mob violence incited by extremist Buddhist monks, first against Christians and then against Muslims. The anxiety also led to an unprecedented move by some Buddhist monks to form a political party (Jathika Hela Urumaya – National Sinhala Heritage) and run for office. Some within that movement, impatient with its mainstream, non-violent stand, formed the alternative Bodu Bala Sena (Buddhist Power Army) led by the virulently violent Buddhist monk Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara. The 26 year-long war, based not on religion but on ethnicity, ended on May 9, 2009, ushering a ten year period of relative peace, broken only by the sporadic mob violence.

Why Minority on Minority Violence?

Christians and Muslims are religious minorities with a common experience of having faced extremist Buddhist violence. Just last year, Muslim communities also experienced violence from extremist Buddhist mobs., Why, then, did a small group of radical Muslims attack churches? Were churches seen as a soft targets? And why did the suicide bombers, who themselves were middle-class well-educated people, target tourist hotels? While these questions are still being explored, what we do know is that some 253 people were killed and over 500 were injured in a series of bombs that went off on Easter Sunday morning. As of this writing, some 70 suspects have been arrested and an international anti-terrorism collaboration has begun.

The government has identified the National Thowheed Jama’at as one of the organizations that carried out these attacks. Significantly, the Islamic State (ISIS) through its Amaq news agency has claimed responsibility. The identification of the suicide bombers - one trained in India, one educated in the UK, and another in Australia - points to the global reach of the operation. This connection suggests that the Sri Lankan incident could be the beginning of Terrorism 3.0, where groups like ISIS spread their lethal tentacles to cells around the world, This would be a  catastrophic development. The undisputable growth of Saudi-inspired Wahhabism in South Asia during the past few decades seemed to prepare the ground for radicalization to take place.

Of the 22 million who live in Sri Lanka, 9.7% are Muslims. As in other parts of South Asia, they are mostly Sunni Muslims, but with a significant Sufi theological orientation.  In the past few decades, however, the Saudi-inspired ultra-conservative movement of Wahhabism has begun to infiltrate Sri Lanka. Since the 1970s (following the oil-boom) many Sri Lankan Muslims have gone to Saudi Arabia for employment, and students have received scholarships to attend Saudi universities. Many returned inspired by this ultra-conservative theology and propagated it in Sri Lanka.

The Sri Lankan government also reports that some 36 Sri Lankan young people had gone to Syria to join ISIS, and that two had come into leadership positions within the organization. Some of them have returned, but the government does not know their whereabouts. There are also reports that many foreign ISIS operatives have arrived in Sri Lanka in the past few years. Many worry that Sri Lanka may become ISIS’ new field of operation.

It is therefore imperative that we have the sharpest possible analysis of the motivations of these religiously-inspired actors, which requires a deeper dive into their theological and symbolic world. This is harder than it seems, since we do not have access to those radicalized. What follows therefore, is necessarily an approximation, an attempt to understand the theological meanings and religious symbols that motivate such groups.

 Theological Clues

The name National Towheed Jama’at (the Society of Strict Monotheism) right at the outset gives us clues to their theological orientation. Based on a strict interpretation of the shahada (the Islamic affirmation of faith), la ilaha illallah (there is no God but God), Wahhabis embrace a strict monotheism or towheed. The only notoriety that this relatively unknown group has had was the December 2018 desecration of Buddha statues in the town of Mawanella -- at the foothills of Kandy ---an act of vandalism with theological motivation.

A large community service organization in India with a similar name, Tamil Nadu Towheed Jama’at and its Sri Lankan branch, Sri Lanka Towheed Jama’at have vociferously declared that they have no relationship with National Towheed Jama’at, even though all these organizations are committed to Wahhabism. In 2016, the Tamil Nadu organization convened a major conference on anti-shirk, or anti-idolatry. Strict monotheists cannot tolerate the idea that people would worship statues or idols, as Hindus all over India do. It is because of shirk that the Taliban in Afghanistan destroyed the ancient Bamiyan Buddha statues. The National Towheed Jama’at destroyed the Buddha statues for this same reason.

Neither can they tolerate other Muslims who don’t believe as they do. The National Towheed Jama’at and other Wahhabi groups have been in conflict with Sufis, who have a tradition of building shrines at the gravesites of dead saints, and a tradition of veneration and praying to those saints. The intra-Muslim conflict, indicative of the intransigence of the Wahhabi tradition spilled over into outright conflict. The U.S. State Department’s 2007 International Religious Freedom Report noted that nine days of violent clashes took place between Wahhabi influenced groups and the Sufi order Thareekathul Mufliheen. The influence of Wahhabis on the mainstream board of Muslim scholars (All Ceylon Jamiathul Ulema) has been significant enough for them to issue a fatwa (religious opinion) against the founder of the Sufi order M.S. Abdulla Pailvaan which was rescinded only after a lengthy defamation suit. When the founder died in 2006, and was buried in the mosque, Wahhabi groups violently protested, because he was an “apostate.” He was eventually exhumed and buried in a public cemetery. Violence against the Sufis have continued. In the village of Kattankudy the board of scholars or ulema attempted unsuccessfully to prevent celebration of a Sufi festival in 2008. That year, a Sri Lanka Supreme Court ordered that 200 members of Thareekathul Mufliheen be allowed to return to their homes in Kattankudy and practice their beliefs in freedom, was obstructed by armed groups.

So, we return to the question: Why three churches and three luxury hotels? One year ago, when the Sinhala mobs attacked Muslim villages, they were protesting the encroaching ultra-conservative Wahhabism in Sri Lanka. Given that history, one would not have expected that the targets in this bombing campaign to be a fellow religious minority, but rather, Buddhist temples. This is one factor that gives credence to the suggestion that this event was planned and executed with foreign influences. Local Muslims do not have a grouse with Christians; foreigners do.

There are a couple of other factors: Of the three churches that were bombed. two were large Catholic churches and one an Evangelical church in Batticaloa (near the large Muslim town of Kattankudi) where National Thowheed Jamaat is located. Reports are that the Zion (Evangelical) church was not the original target. The bomb was intended for the nearby St. Mary’s Cathedral. The story is that when the would-be suicide bomber went to St. Mary’s the previous day to check out the location, he ran into the priest and talked with him. Following the conversation the priest grew suspicious and informed the congregation that he is advancing the time of the Easter Sunday mass. When the suicide bomber went to St. Mary’s, mass was already over and only a few people were left. This is what caused him to go the nearby Zion church. If the intention was to bomb three Catholic churches, it fits the narrative of National Towheed Jama’at’s anti-shirk theology – Catholic churches have statues!

This still does not answer the attack on luxury hotels. However, the revenge for New Zealand theory fits this scenario. Even though the planning for this attack predates the Christchurch mosque shooting, it may be considered an opportunistic connection. The Christchurch killer was a white supremacist. He admitted so in his manifesto. Was the attack on hotels intended to take revenge on western tourists? To many observers, the connection between white supremacy and Christian supremacy is obvious. Was the attack on churches to avenge the Christian supremacy inherent to the Christchurch killer’s white supremacy. 

It is also important to note that a truck filled with 87 undetonated bombs was discovered and safely defused near the Bandaranaike International Airport indicating that there were probably other targeted locations that were not reached. Neither the government nor the people expect that this will be the end, rather the beginning of a period of uncertainty, violence and struggle.

Today, Sri Lankan Muslims are in hiding, fearing  violent reprisals. However, no one can say that the Muslim community did not act urgently and loudly to try to curb this violence. As early as three years ago the Muslim Council of Sri Lanka had warned military and intelligence officials about National Towheed Jama’at. According to the Muslim Council’s Vice President Hilmi Ahmed, this group seeks to target non-Muslim communities, to kill them in the name of religion. “I personally have gone and handed over all the documents three years ago, giving names and details of all these people. They sat on it. That’s a tragedy,” he said. Its more than a tragedy. It’s a travesty.

Interfaith Peacemaker Teams

OMNIA’s mission in Sri Lanka has been to equip religious leaders and people of faith to counter religious extremism and religion-based oppression, domination and violence. To date OMNIA  has trained up to 200 Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim and Christian clergy and lay people to collaborate across religions, to listen to and learn from those in the margins of local communities, and to build power so they can act together in effective and meaningful ways. These leaders have so far launched 14 Interfaith Peacemaker Teams (IPTs) in the North and East of the country (areas ravaged by the 26 year-long war) as well as in the Kandy district. OMNIA’s strategy is that if there are a substantial number of functional IPTs in an area, the space available for recruitment to violent extremist groups, and for the radicalization of young people, will be significantly reduced. The IPTs may not be able to prevent terrorist attacks carried out be a few people committed to extremist ideologies. But the opportunity for their radicalization will be significantly reduced.

Bishop Kumara Illangasinghe, retired Anglican Bishop of Kurunegala, and OMNIA’s primary organizer of IPTs in Sri Lanka. wrote in his reflection on the remedy for such violence: “Let us build powerful community teams that will ensure peace and harmony, within and outside the community. It has to be our resolve to be powerful by being united. We need Interfaith Peacemaker Teams in every community and in every village in Sri Lanka. It is only then that we will be able to face and defeat the evil powers in our midst.”