How Sri Lanka’s Christian Community Became a Target During Holy Week

Sri Lankan Navy soldiers stand guard in front of the St. Anthony’s Shrine a day after the series of blasts, in Colombo, Sri Lanka on Monday.

The deadly bombings in Sri Lanka over the weekend follow a pattern of religious terror that has become grimly familiar around the world. The attackers targeted churches on Easter Sunday, when Christians would be gathered in large numbers and vulnerable during worship. They also chose crowded and exposed public spaces, including hotels likely to be hosting foreign tourists.

And they may have been associated with an Islamist militant cause: On Tuesday, the Islamic State claimed responsibility, although this has not been independently verified. Sri Lankan officials have alleged that at least one local Islamist group was involved in the attacks, and suggested that the attacks may have been carried out in retaliation for the white-nationalist shooting spree at mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, in March; they did not say what led them to make that claim. The bombings killed at least 321 people, according to Sri Lankan police, and injured hundreds more.

This pattern of violence is depressingly familiar worldwide, but it has been distinctly unfamiliar in Sri Lanka—until now. The small island nation was consumed by a vicious civil war from 1983 to 2009, which was largely motivated by ethnic, rather than specifically religious, tensions. Since then, however, leaders of the dominant Sinhalese Buddhist population have frequently targeted religious minorities, including Christians and especially Muslims. In fact, Christians and Muslims in Sri Lanka have developed a degree of solidarity as persecuted minorities, Chad Bauman, a religion professor at Butler University who studies Christian movements in the region, told me.