Sri Lanka, site of the Easter morning terrorist attacks this past Sunday, is a Buddhist-majority country. The death toll of the Easter bombings has risen above 300 as of Tuesday, and experts of religious trends and violence say the attacks could put a strain on Christian-Muslim tensions not just in Sri Lanka, but worldwide.
The Easter bombings come amid a fragile period for inter-faith relations. Last month 50 people were killed in a shooting at a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, and this past October saw 11 killed at a shooting in a Pittsburgh synagogue. Sri Lankan officials say the Sunday attacks were carried out by a local Islamist militant group called the National Thowheed Jamaath. There is suspected international assistance as well.
Ed Stetzer, the Billy Graham Distinguished Chair for Church, Mission and Evangelism at Wheaton College, told The Washington Post in regards to Sri Lanka: “Here’s a nation that has pluralism and yet still had religious terrorism. It reminds you there isn’t one solution, no one safe place. It’s surprising.”
Some experts say the attacks could be a turning point for a global Christian-Muslim dynamic already fraught with tension. Steve Bezner, pastor at Houston Northwest Church and a leader on inter-faith dialogue, told the Post the Sri Lanka bombings could be “a bit of a turn” for Christians and Muslims. He said his church hosted a group of Muslims on Easter Sunday, and he was worried someone at his church would “say something stupid” to the guests. He explained that while the religious minority looks different in Sri Lanka than the United States, where most people of faith identify as Christian, the written law of religious freedom does not always manifest as such in both countries: “When it’s time to defend the minority, we haven’t always done so.”
Evoking fear and division is part of the definition of terrorism. Many experts point out that while the attacks could exacerbate the fragility between Christians and Muslims, it’s important that people on both sides not play into a persecution narrative that might not exist, especially in a place like Sri Lanka where both Christians and Muslims are in the religious minority.
Mathew Schmalz, a professor of religious studies at the College of the Holy Cross who studied Catholicism in Sri Lanka, told the Post: “Persecution of religious minorities throughout the world is real. A lot of this can be exploited to fuel theologies of ideologies of grievance. Both evangelical Christians and Catholics feel society is unwelcoming to them. It’s unfortunate if Christians rely on a superficial understanding of victimhood. It plays into their own prejudices.”