I woke up Easter morning, and before dressing for church, I grabbed my tablet to check my email and the daily news.
The story I saw said there had been bombings at hotels in Sri Lanka. Lots of people were killed, and more were injured. The report noted that some Americans were among the victims. It was an otherwise glorious Easter morning that I didn’t want to ruin, so I didn’t mention the bombings to my family before we left for Easter morning services.
After Mass, I learned that Christian churches also were bombed. The attacks had targeted Christians celebrating the holiest week on the Christian calendar. At latest count, more than 250 were killed and 500 were injured. The U.N. Children’s Fund said 45 children were among the dead.
As the president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Sri Lanka, Bishop Winston Fernando of Badulla, said, “The fact that this attack on churches took place when the people were at worship on the most sacred feast of Easter is indeed a cruel act which is extremely deplorable.”
Sri Lanka is an island country in South Asia, located in the Indian Ocean southeast of the Arabian Sea, with a population of about 21 million. In terms of faith traditions, Sri Lanka is about 70 percent ethnic Sinhalese, most of whom are Buddhist. About 12 percent of the population is Tamil (mostly Hindus), 10 percent is Muslim, and 7 percent is Christian (mainly Roman Catholic). Buddhism is recognized and given special privileges in the Sri Lankan constitution.
Sri Lanka has long suffered from ethnic and sectarian conflict. Its recent history was marked by a 26-year long civil war that ended in 2009, when the nation’s Armed Forces defeated the Hindu/separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. The Tamil Tigers, as they were called, specialized in suicide bombings, and were recognized as a terrorist organization by the United States, the European Union, and other entities. The group was very violent, but has been silent for a decade. Even if some holdouts were reasserting themselves, they would be unlikely to strike against Western or Christian targets.
The bombings were sufficiently coordinated and complicated to suggest that this wasn’t a homegrown affair. Six explosions took place within a short period. Three were at churches: St. Anthony’s Roman Catholic Shrine in the capital city of Colombo; St. Sebastian’s Roman Catholic Church in Negombo (the deadliest blast; at least 104 people were killed); and Protestant (Evangelical) Zion Church in the city of Batticaloa. The other three blasts all took place at hotels in Colombo. Two other explosions took place in Colombo later that day as police searched for suspects. One of those explosions killed three officers who were on the scene.
Beyond the eight explosions, government officials located an improvised plastic pipe bomb near Sri Lanka’s main airport and successfully defused it. The next day, bomb squad officials found another explosive in a van in Colombo. It exploded as they were trying to defuse it. They also found almost 90 detonators at the main bus station in Colombo.
A planned attack on a fourth hotel failed, and that helped police identify two Sri Lankan jihadi groups suspected of being involved in the blasts: the National Thawheed Jama’ut (NTJ) and Jammiyathul Millathu Ibrahim (JMI). The NTJ is a radical Muslim group that came to notice in 2018 when it was linked to vandalism of Buddhist statues. JMI is thought to be very small and not well known.
Stories of pain and loss are everywhere in Sri Lanka. According to a story by Seevagan Poopalaratnam in Al Jazeera News, among the dead at Zion Church “was Pastor Ganeshamoorthy Thirukumaran’s teenage son.”
“Sobbing inconsolably after laying his son’s remains to rest … Thirumakaran [sic] said it was he who had welcomed the suspected attacker into the church.” The minister noted that the visitor “was not a familiar face at the church,” but, “I asked him to sit down and stepped outside the building. Moments later, the bomb exploded.”
Sri Lankan officials have apprehended over 40 people in the investigation of the bombings. They are still investigating whether the two suspected Islamic groups had “international help,” but ISIS already has claimed that it provided help.
Two days after the bombings, ISIS issued a statement, saying that the perpetrators of the Easter Sunday attacks in Sri Lanka were fighting on its behalf. The terror group’s news outlet, Amaq, provided the noms de guerre of seven men it said were behind the “blessed attack” that targeted Christians during their “blasphemous holiday.” It said that ISIS was targeting “nationals of the coalition states and Christians in Sri Lanka.” By the term “coalition,” they meant the U.S.-led alliance of more than 70 countries that forced ISIS from its caliphate.
Amaq released photographs and a video of men it claimed were responsible. The video showed eight men pledging allegiance to the Islamic State. Most held knives and their faces were covered (except for one). That raises some questions, because ISIS occasionally has claimed responsibility for attacks with which they weren’t involved. Still, ISIS has been growing in strength in Sri Lanka, and it certainly could have supplied the materials and helped with coordination of the attacks.
Attention has also focused on Sri Lankan authorities. About two weeks ago, based upon information obtained from an ISIS suspect arrested in India, Sri Lankan officials were told that a “foreign intelligence agency has reported that the NTJ is planning to carry out suicide attacks targeting prominent churches as well as the Indian high commission in Colombo,” according to Agence France-Presse. They were also warned months ago that Islamist radicals posed a serious threat, and were stockpiling explosives and other weapons.
Despite this advance notice, officials didn’t take steps to prevent the slaughter. After the attacks, President Maithripala Sirisena pledged “major changes” in high-level positions in the security establishment. “I must be truthful and admit that there were lapses on the part of defense officials,” he said. “There was an intelligence report about the attack, but I was not kept informed.”
Two days after the bombings, Sri Lankan officials raised the possibility that the bombers had been out to avenge the killings of 50 Muslims in two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, the month earlier. They soon walked back that charge, and New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said that her government wasn’t aware of any intelligence regarding such retaliation. That has not, however, stopped the story from being reported in the news and on social media.
I logged on to Twitter to see what people were saying about the alleged connection between Christchurch and Sri Lanka. While there were some uninformed and bigoted posts, I was happy to see numerous posts from Muslims saying things like this: “ISIS takes credit for the Sri Lanka church attacks, calling them revenge for the New Zealand killings. Waiting for them to take revenge against themselves for all the mosques they’ve destroyed and Muslims they’ve killed.”
Radial jihadists have indeed victimized Arabs and Muslims more often than they have victimized Christians and Westerners. That doesn’t ease the pain or justify the unjustifiable, but perhaps there will be an awakening. More and more Muslims are pointing out the injustice of radical Islam. That’s a good start. Now, if only more U.S. politicians would be willing to speak as frankly. That would be a start.
Ronald J. Rychlak is the Jamie L. Whitten chair in law and government at the University of Mississippi. He is the author of several books, including “Hitler, the War, and the Pope,” “Disinformation” (co-authored with Ion Mihai Pacepa), and “The Persecution and Genocide of Christians in the Middle East” (co-edited with Jane Adolphe).
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.