The joy of Easter turned into a moment of terror and grief for Christians in Sri Lanka yesterday morning, where suicide bombers killed more than 290 people and injuring almost 500 in a coordinated attack on three churches and three high-end hotels.
At Zion Church, hymnals, Bibles, and debris were left behind across the floor rows as victims fled the blast, easter lilies remained in front of the sanctuary. Those killed include more than 28 worshipers, including a dozen children and 27 injured at Zion—according to its website. The Times of India reported a pastor greeting the suicide bomber, an Easter visitor, just minutes before the blast.
“May the Dear Lord continue to comfort us all in this difficult time,” read a post on the church’s Facebook page, with a video message from its senior pastor, Roshan Mahesan.
Other attacks took place at two Catholic churches, St. Anthony’s Shrine in Kochchikade and St. Sebastian’s Church in Katana, and three hotels in Colombo, all around 8:45 a.m. local time.
St. Sebastian, where initial reports indicated that more than 100 worshipers had been killed, posted a brief plea on Facebook inviting the community to “come and help” after the bombing, along with photos of rows of disheveled pews covered in roof tiles, the church’s ceiling blown out, and blood splattered on the walls.
“This is an attack against the whole of Sri Lanka because [we are a] multi-ethnic, multi-religious and multi-cultural country, and the whole country comes together in celebration of Easter Sunday,” Edmond Tillekeratne, social communications director for the Archdiocese of Colombo, told CNN from St. Sebastian’s.
“We are dismayed by this turn of events,” Prabodith Mihindukulasuriya, a faculty member at Colombo Theological Seminary, told CT. “After 10 years of carefree existence, we are once again lunged into a period of having to live in fear of suicide bombers.
“We cling to the Risen Lord and the hope of the resurrection,” he said. “Without him, we are in darkness and death.”
“Be patient in trouble, and keep on praying,” stated the National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka (NCEASL), citing Romans 12:12 as it deplored the bombings and urged Christians to “remain calm and refrain from being misled by rumours during this time of crisis” [full statement below].
“In three decades of war, this scale of attack has never happened,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, the South Asia director at Human Rights Watch, in The New York Times. “In terms of serious, religion-based violence, we haven’t really seen that.”
“The attackers knew their targets well, and seem to have chosen them for maximum symbolic value,” wrote Randy Boyagoda, a Sri Lankan Catholic novelist and professor at the University of Toronto, for The New York Times. He wondered “whether the global currents of religiously inspired terrorism [will] overwhelm the island’s longstanding experience with pluralism.”
The government has arrested 24 people in connection with the attacks, but has not released further details about their affiliation. The Catholic archdiocese in Colombo canceled evening services, and the Sri Lankan army has increased security at churches and other sites that may be at risk.
Christians make up less than 10 percent of the population of the majority-Buddhist nation, and have reported escalating concerns about their religious freedom. [The Conversation offers an explainer on the island’s Catholic and Protestant history.]
Open Doors ranks Sri Lanka as No. 46 on its World Watch List of the 50 countries where it’s hardest to be a Christian. It explains:
Sri Lanka is a majority Buddhist nation, and so while Christians from more historical churches enjoy a little more freedom in expressing their faith, believers from Buddhist backgrounds are treated as second-class citizens and can face slander and attacks.