Nearly 300 people are dead after Muslim suicide bombers attacked three churches and three high-end hotels on Easter Sunday this week. Christians—the majority of whom are Catholics—make up less than 10 percent of the population of the majority-Buddhist nation and have reported escalating concerns about their religious freedom.
Christian persecution has largely come at the hands of Buddhist radicals, so the church has largely responded to the attacks with shock, says Ivor Poobalan, the principal of Colombo Theological Seminary in Kohuwala (Colombo), Sri Lanka.
“We expected the threat or danger to come from those quarters,” said Poobalan. “Islam has been around for over 1,000 years and has never been violent.”
Poobalan joined digital media producer Morgan Lee and theology editor Caleb Lindgren to discuss how Christianity arrived in Sri Lanka, why the faith has long been associated with privilege, and how he hopes the church will respond to the bombings.
This episode of Quick to Listen is brought to you by the MA in Humanitarian & Disaster Leadership program at Wheaton College Graduate School, preparing leaders to serve the most vulnerable and the church globally. For more information, go to wheaton.edu/HDL.
This episode of Quick to Listen is brought to you in part by Bloodline, the new book by Skip Heitzig, gives you an up-close view of the cross that reveals God’s ultimate mission to save you from sin’s destruction. Bloodline is available wherever books are sold.
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April 24, 2019 Trans
Caleb Lindgren: So this week, we have Dr. Ivor Poobalan on. He is the principal of Colombo Theological Seminary in Colombo, Sri Lanka. In addition to regular teaching, Dr. Poobalan also has over 30 years of ministry experience and preaches regularly in Sri Lanka and around the globe. He's the author of Everything Has Become New: Paul's Letter to the Ephesians and was a contributor to CT's Understand the Faith Study Bible, which was produced with Zondervan. And then rounding out quite an impressive and active resume, Dr. Poobalan is also the chairperson of Sri Lanka's first world missions initiative, Global Impact, and was recently appointed co-chair of the theology working group of the Lausanne Movement. So he's a very distinguished guests and we're glad to have him on. Dr. Poobalan, welcome to the show.
Dr. Ivor Poobalan: Thank you very much, Morgan and Caleb. Thank you. Happy to be on the show.
Morgan Lee: I'm just going to kind of recap everything that's happened for people who may not be as familiar with the situation. Nearly 300 people are dead after suicide bombers attacked three churches and three high-end hotels on Easter Sunday this week. An attack it Zion, a charismatic church, killed more than two dozen churchgoers, nearly half of them children. And an attack at two Catholic churches, there were more than 100 worshippers that had been killed. Christians, the majority of them Catholics, make up less than 10% of the population of the majority Buddhist country and have been reporting escalating concerns about the religious freedom. Open Doors ranks Sri Lanka as number 46 on its World Watch List of the 50 countries where it's hardest to be a Christian. Much of the persecution has come from the Buddhist population, a religious majority in Sri Lanka. The country also has sizable Hindu and Muslim minorities. This week on Quick To Listen, we'll talk about the history of Christianity in Sri Lanka, and what the reality is for the Church in the nation of 21 million.
All right Caleb, so I don't know where you were and how you heard about these attacks, but I'd be interested in getting what your reaction was.
Caleb Lindgren: We did our Easter Sunrise Service at my church. It's always full, with a lot of celebration and excitement and this year was no exception. And then after the service, I was spending the afternoon with my family that was visiting from the West Coast of the U.S., here for Easter, and we were just in their hotel room, just chatting about a variety of different things, and we had the TV on and it was a new station, and I just happened to look over my father's shoulder and saw the report about the bombings in Sri Lanka.
And my initial reaction, to be honest, I was mad at God. Because we had talked here in the office and with some friends about like, oh, you know, this is always a dangerous time for Christians around the world, and there's a lot of attacks that happen and happens on Easter, and we had prayed about it frequently in a number of different contexts. And not that God owes it to me to answer my prayers, but I was like, why do you like that happen? And I was very sad. My heart went out to the whole Sri Lankan community and the Christians are affected. And it put, it put a damper on the Easter joy that I was already struggling with a little bit, just because sometimes if you don't feel like celebrating, it can be hard to do. Yeah, it was, it was a shock. It was very sad to see. I don't know. I was moved to pray and wasn't really sure what to do and how to react after that.
Morgan Lee: Yeah, I think I also found out a little bit on the later end with you. I was overseas this past weekend, and since I was kind of in vacation mode, I honestly wasn't paying that much attention to the news, which is kind of to me the point of taking a break when I'm there. And I got a message from my sister, who also lives overseas, and she was kind of just like I can't even fathom what happened. And I was like great, I already know that means. And I mean, obviously it's Easter Sunday and so you kind of, after covering this beat for I would even say like a year or maybe two years, you just kind of begin to associate Easter Sunday as being a day to kind of expect terrorist attacks. I don't think I expected it to be this intense and this awful.
Obviously besides these churches—we're going to focus a lot today on the particular Christian population, but there were a lot of people that just were at these hotels also on vacation, eating, spending time with their family. I was reading coverage about this one situation where a mom and her daughter, the mom is like a relatively well-known chef there in the community, and the daughter had just uploaded a picture to Facebook that was saying like, enjoying breakfast or Easter brunch with the family. And both of them died in this attack.
Yeah, my sister who had also messaged me about this was in Sri Lanka a couple of years ago. So it doesn't really feel—none of this stuff ever feels extremely far away, right? We have this connection, obviously with worshippers around the world because they are part of the body of Christ, but I also just feel a connection to the fact that the world feels so small in many ways. Yeah, so I'm glad that we're going to be able to get into some of the stuff today. Dr. Poobalan, I'm curious where were you and how did you find out about this?
Dr. Ivor Poobalan: Actually I was on my way back from the US and had landed in at Heathrow Airport. So, I turn the wi-fi on and the first thing that hit me was the news that just flooded in. I couldn't believe it, Easter Sunday morning, to get that news. But you know, it was such a shock because it's been 10 years since we've had any serious violence in the country. It's been such a peaceful period for us after 34 years of civil war. So this huge shock.
Morgan Lee: I'm assuming based on the fact that you work at Colombo Theological Seminary that that's also where you live?
Dr. Ivor Poobalan: Yes, I live in Colombo.
Morgan Lee: Okay, so maybe you can just tell people, who may not be familiar with the city, what it's like.
Dr. Ivor Poobalan: Colombo is just like any modern city, I guess. It's the only major city in Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka is a small island, 250 miles long and about 160 miles wide. But the capital is home to many different communities and also an international community of people who come for business and other pursuits. So Columbo Theological Seminary has been in the city for the last 25 years, and we have a strong Christian presence in the city along with other religious groups. So you could think of it like most major cities in that sense.
Morgan Lee: One thing that I think is going to be really important for our listeners to know as we get into a more in-depth discussion about Sri Lanka is just how diverse the country really is. We've mentioned a couple of times, it's not a super big country. It's 21 million people, which is sizable, but there are Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, and then there are different ethnic groups, and I'm wondering if you can just kind of tell us about the relationship that these groups have with each other.
Dr. Ivor Poobalan: Yes, I think one of the confusing things for most people would be the difference between the ethnic groups and the religious groups, because they think groups are often associated with a religion. So most Tamils—we have Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims and Burghers as our main ethnic groups. The Sinhalese are mostly Buddhist, the Tamils are mostly Hindu. Of course, the Muslims are descendants, mostly of Arab descent, but Islamic. And then you have the Burghers who are the descendants of European colonial migrants, and that is a very small group now because the Burghers began to migrate from the 20th century, and today we have a very small Burgher community left. So you have the four major religions—Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism—intermingling for centuries. But also, these are ethnic groups that have their own cultures and language and so on. I mean, we have two major languages other than English—Sinhala and Tamil are the two languages spoken in Sri Lanka.
Morgan Lee: You mentioned, and I think many people are familiar with the fact, that there was a really significant civil war in Sri Lanka. When did that start? And how long did that last? And how did it resolve?
Dr. Ivor Poobalan: It started in 1975 with what is called Tamil Militancy, a minority Tamil community. There was a radical element that wishes to have a separate state in Sri Lanka, and it was an armed rebellion which turned into a full-scale civil war. By about 1983, it sorts of transformed into a full-scale civil war. And then many thousands of lives were lost, lots of damage, lots of Sri Lankans migrated so that we had perhaps the second largest per capita diaspora until the Syrian War. Next to the Lebanese. So we had about 2 million Sri Lankans outside, out of a 21 million population. And so for instance, if you go to Toronto or London, you'll find a lot of Sri Lankans in many of these cities.
The war really also brought us down economically. Sri Lanka is a tourist destination and was poised to become one of the main tourist destinations. In fact, Lonely Planet voted 2019 Sri Lanka is the best place to visit, and so it's kind of really sad that we are back to the challenges of our economy. The war ended in 2009, after the major battle— I mean it was a huge scale war, with aerial bombardment and naval fights, and so on. But it ended in 2009 on the 19th of May. Since then there has been no bombings, or violence, or fighting, or shooting, something that went on, maybe experienced for 34 years.
Morgan Lee: Wow. So you mentioned these particular different ethnic groups and I'm curious, where will you find Christians predominantly when it comes to these groups?
Dr. Ivor Poobalan: The Christian church is very interesting because most Sinhalese are Buddhist and most Tamils are Hindus, but it is only the Church that has representation from both these ethnic groups in large numbers. So in a way the church is a strong witness to the peacemaking power of Christ because you have Sinhalese and Tamils that are not only members of the Church but demonstrate a great oneness and unity throughout our history as a Christian Church. That's been a feature of the Church. So, right through the ethnic conflict, this has stood out as something beautiful that the Church has been able to show.
Caleb Lindgren: And a lot of guests that we have on the podcasts talk about doing these deep dives outside of the West. There's a lot of pressure from the ethnic group that somebody comes from as they become Christian. If in the case of a conversion, or even within even if there's a history of Christianity in the family, the ethnic group or exerts a lot of pressure on those individuals. Is that the case in Sri Lanka as well?
Dr. Ivor Poobalan: You know, I have to be careful here. The history of Sri Lanka shows a lot of peaceful coexistence between communities. So, if you think of it Buddhism and Hinduism have been in the Island from before 2000, I mean before Christ, from 300, 400 BC. And then Islam comes to the island around the 8th century, Christianity in its modern forms are from the 16th century. And so for centuries these religious groups have lived together and not, you know, conflicted with each other, which is really something to keep in mind. But, since the 19th century there was the development of what was called Protestant Buddhism. It is called Protestant Buddhism because it was a sort of an ethno-religious reaction to colonialism, British colonialism. And that then led to some radicalization of Buddhism, and it was a small group that has been sort of radicalized.
Buddhism, by its very nature, is a peaceful religion, but as you probably know in Myanmar, Sri Lanka and so on, there has been a violent turn by some sectors of the Buddhist community. And with that there has been a change. So in India, you will find the radical Hindu groups, in Sri Lanka it has been mostly a small radicalized Buddhist group that has been sort of challenging the Church and challenging Christian work and ministry.
So when people convert from their religious communities, in the past there hasn't been a lot of pressure. I mean, obviously families are disturbed when that happens, across the world, I guess. But now there is this added pressure that's coming from the public accusations against Christianity, and allegations and so on. And so family sometimes feel greater pressure from their communities. But still many people do convert, and their families are quite accepting and even participate in their new religious traditions.
Caleb Lindgren: That's good to hear. I was hoping that we could even unpack that a little further to help people understand. Again for a lot of our readers, who are mostly in the West—at least many of them are—we get these World Watch Lists reports and you know, you have this whole ranking, and it could be very like intense sounding.
Like oh, you know, here it is and here's like the 50 countries where it's really hard to be a Christian. But I don't think many of us have a good sense for what that actually feels like on the ground. Whether it feels difficult all the time, if that's like a regular part of life? Or if that's just certain elements or certain moments? Does it feel like you're living in one of the 50 hardest countries to be a Christian? Because from what you're describing, it sounds like for the most part there's a lot of peaceful coexistence.
Dr. Ivor Poobalan: I would say the issue is complex. One is that as you could see on Easter Sunday churches, all over the island could meet and have their Easter Sunday services. So we are not a country where Christians cannot worship, or Muslims cannot go to the mosque, or so on. Every religious group is able to practice their religion openly, in terms of having the acts of worship and living out their cultures and so on. From a legal point of view, or constitutional point of view, there is religious freedom.
But this can also vary from community, or location to location—particularly when you go into homogeneous settings, which are more rural, the pressure is obviously—it's a social pressure typical of, if you take the background of 1 Peter, how Christians to live in that kind of community and be a small minority, who had walked away from their previous faith and their previous cultures. And so the community then treats them differently. And so that kind of pressure does exist for our Christian brothers and sisters who live outside of the main cities. Because they are homogeneous societies and usually one religious group will be the strong community, will have its religious centers, and so the community does not want anyone to break ranks. And so this becomes a huge pressure, and even in terms of schooling of children, taking part in community activities, burial of the dead. There are many ways in which people face discrimination when it comes to those settings. And that has been the concern that has been picked up by organizations, like Open Doors, and Voice of the Martyrs, and so on, that have been able to show that these are real pressures that Christians face in their communities.
Morgan Lee: I think that there's three main—I don't know if they're different types of Christianity, or just three different Christian histories—but you mentioned that Christianity has been in Sri Lanka for a very long time—I can't exactly remember which century you mentioned. Was at the 4th or 5th Century?
Dr. Ivor Poobalan: Well, we've had the present Christianity goes back to the arrival of the Portuguese in 1505. And that's Catholicism, as you know. And then in 1638, the Dutch overthrew the Portuguese and so reformed Christianity was introduced. And then in 1802, the British overthrew the Dutch, and so all other forms of Protestant and Evangelical Christianity begins to arrive from the 19th century, early 19th century. And during the time also the American missions reached out to Sri Lanka. So that's how we have all the different denominations represented in our churches.
Morgan Lee: I'm curious how closely do these Christian groups work together, or is there a decent amount of infighting within the church as well?
Dr. Ivor Poobalan: I would say that in the last 30 to 40 years, maybe 50 years, we've seen a positive growth in relationships. Previously because of colonial power, you know churches could get associated with colonial power and therefore whoever was in power was also the one who had the upper hand, I suppose. But once colonialism ended in 1948, the Church, the Christian community recognized itself as a minority and has become more and more keen to work with one another although we are very diverse—we have a great number of denominations.
The main distinction is between the Roman Catholic community, which is the Roman Catholic Church makes up about 6.5 percent of the population, and all the other Christian groups make up 1 percent. So the big distinction is between Roman Catholicism and other Christian groups, but the relationship is very cordial. Of course, people do go from one church to the other and so on, but those are typical around the world. There is no fighting, or you know strong rivalries that are practiced, which we are thankful for. We don't have a lot of Christian religious wars that have been rooted in our country. So that's good.
Morgan Lee: I'm curious what elements of culture that Sri Lanka shares with India, and also the extent to which there is some particular caste system that also existed in Sri Lanka. I only say that just because I've done a decent amount of reading about the caste system, and its intersection with Christianity in India, and I didn't know any of that carried over into Sri Lanka.
Dr. Ivor Poobalan: First thing to say is that Sri Lanka has always been an independent nation, with monarchies going back to 300, 400 BC. Sri Lanka has never been a part of India, but culturally very closely associated because the Sinhalese are descendants, are migrants from India. And the Tamils are also from Indian origin.
The original Sri Lankan inhabitants were the Veddah community, and the Veddah still exists as an Aboriginal people group in Sri Lanka, but there are very small group now. Of course, the Sinhalese who came from Eastern India and then Tamils were from Southern India constitute the main communities. The Muslims came from Arabia. So we do have a lot of cultural sharing, like for instance, the Tamil language is actually original to India. Sinhalese is indigenous and only spoken in Sri Lanka, but it has roots in Sanskrit. So goes back to India again. In terms of food, customs, and dress and music, and so on, lots of influence—Indian influence.
Caste system wise, Sri Lanka also has its own caste system—both in the Sinhalese community and in the Tamil community—and this has been one of our features, and to some extent it did affect the Church in certain parts of the country. But over time the Church has gradually worked, you know through its theological transformation, the Church has largely moved away from any kind of caste-oriented community living. So, in the past, of course, you know marriages—most important things like marriages and business—people would always check out the caste, but that is very much less now.
Morgan Lee: So, with that being said, how are Christians kind of generally regarded? Are they seeing as rich or poor? Or educated, undereducated? What type of social currency do they have?
Dr. Ivor Poobalan: So, if I could just draw your attention to the fact that Christians, Christianity was associated with the colonial powers, which meant that Christians did have advantages during that five-hundred-year period. Advantages to gain education, gain government jobs, and this is what created some resentment towards Christianity in the 19th century. But, at the same time, Christian missionaries were oftentimes at odds with the colonial rulers because the missionaries were thinking of the people and the colonial powers were thinking of economic benefits. And oftentimes the missionaries championed the national causes. Missionaries were involved in, you know, safeguarding the language and the rights of the people and so on.
But Christianity was regarded as a kind of an arm of colonialism, and that's an image or a reputation that we're finding difficult to shake off because from the 19th century, this has been constantly—this rhetoric has been constantly used that, you know, Christianity came with the Bible, the music, and the bottle, which refers to alcohol. And so this idea that Christianity came with a gun in one hand, and the Bible in the other—these kinds of sort of caricatures of Christianity have been widely spread. So the church is regarded as—was regarded at one time as sort of wealthy, educated, elitist, and so on.
But, 70 years after independence in 1948, now the Christian community is a minority and has been largely disempowered. It has very little influence in political forums and has to win the respect of the community by its, you know, genuine application, and abilities, and service, and so on. And I think that our society is gradually seeing Christianity now not as an elitist group, but as a very different entity.
Another factor is that in the last 40 years, the church has become active to reach people for Christ. And the church began to grow again since the 1970s, after being in decline for over a hundred years. In fact, we were the only non-Muslim country in the majority world where the church was in decline. But, because of the new efforts of evangelism and sharing the Gospel, there have been many who have come to Christ, and most of them have come from poorer communities. So Christianity is now, has a changed profile with large numbers of poor having embraced the Lord's Gospel.
Caleb Lindgren: I was curious, given all of that background and some of that history that you laid out—and thank you for helping us understand that—how do you think the Christian community is going to respond to the attacks that happened just this past weekend?
Dr. Ivor Poobalan: This is the challenge for us also. In fact, we are beginning to talk about how we are going to respond. Obviously, we know the way we ought to respond, but how will it work out in the ground? So I think Christian leaders have a big responsibility at this point to guide the Church, because previously we've had violence against ethnic groups, but this is the first major act of violence against the Church. I believe the Church, the Christian Community—both Roman Catholic and non-Roman Catholic is well prepared, because we have thought about violence and issues of peace for many years. And we constantly reflect on the cross and the Gospel in all our churches. So this is going to be a good opportunity for us to live out that conviction. Needless to say with such a sort of painful experience, we also may be vulnerable to react in unchristian ways, unbiblical ways. And so the Church leadership has a big responsibility to bring the right values and the right views, and right Christian perspective to bear on the situation.
Morgan Lee: Since I'm assuming you've had a chance to speak with your colleagues and friends and other ministry leaders in the past couple days, I'm wondering what the general reaction is that you're getting. Are you getting questions of surprise? Anger? Confusion? What does the general sentiment look like?
Dr. Ivor Poobalan: I think one is shock, because it was so unexpected. As you know, we talked just a moment ago about the extremist Buddhist groups that have been targeting Christians for the last—well since the 1980s and early 90s. And so we've been always viewing the threat or the danger to come from those quarters. One little thing to say about Islam in Sri Lanka, it is one of those very interesting features that Islam has been around for over a thousand years, and has never been violent in Sri Lanka because it came as a came through Arab traders who had to sort of build good relations with the community, the society here. So the Islamic tradition in Sri Lanka has been throughout peaceful. So there was no expectation that an equal minority group would be attacked by extremists from the Muslim community.
So it is shocking at the outset, but there is also a sense of anger that in the intelligence community had known, but the authorities had not acted on this information. A fair amount of information had been known about these attacks and this group that has claimed responsibility. So there is some anger towards the authorities. But also the danger at this point of, you know, beginning to look at a whole community as responsible. This is always the danger. So that's another reaction that I think will need Biblical teaching and counsel for the Church to be careful. And there have been lots of Christians who are, you know, instinctively thinking about how we must be thoughtful about the Muslim community who have nothing to do with this. And that's nice to see—that many Christians are concerned that they are even trying to write letters to make sure they express their position. And so those are initiatives that are happening at the moment.
Caleb Lindgren: I'm encouraged to hear that. Are people afraid? I mean, they're going to have to go to church again this coming Sunday.
Dr. Ivor Poobalan: You know, it's like we have to use a reset button now because we suddenly got transported back 10 years. Having moved around freely, not being anxious about going to a mall, or going to a church service, or any gathering. Today, the government shutdown all supermarkets at 5 in the evening, because that's the one place people are rushing to because of curfew in the night, they try to get as much shopping done as possible to get stuff into their homes. And so that had become a target. So this really bizarre idea is that the supermarket could be dangerous. And now for the first time, Christians have to think of a church service because it's always a welcome place for the stranger, right? And it becomes a soft target because by its very nature the Church is wanting people to walk in.
And so, in the Zion Church in particular, where a couple of students and those who associate with the seminary also died, the bomber had come to the church, and Batticaloa being a sort of a rural town, everybody knows everybody. And so this stranger was identified, and they were surprised to find him walking straight into the middle of the church. And the pastor spoke with him and felt somewhat uncomfortable and asked a couple of his assistants to take the person out and ask him who he is. And that's how this bomber was outside the church when he detonated the bomb.
But unfortunately, the Sunday School had just finished, and the children were due to come into church but were having breakfast and were playing in the garden in the compound where the bomber moved to. So that the larger number of casualties there, as a number of fatalities were children. There's also the sad story of the Sunday School teacher who has let us know that she had taught about the cross and asked the children that day, "How many of you are willing would be willing to die for Jesus?" And the whole class put their hands up, and apparently, 50% of the class didn't make it.
Morgan Lee: Wow, those are—those stories are extremely intense, and also just speak to the fact that obviously a lot of these families were extremely affected at a personal level, not to mention the entire congregation who just feels extremely threatened.
I wanted to go back to what you were saying as far as shock. To some extent as people who cover and write about this stuff, we've seen obviously persecution of Christians around the world by Muslims. We've seen this happen obviously, it happens a lot of times in Nigeria would probably be the most prominent example that comes to my mind, and also the real radical expressions that are in the Middle East as well. But what I hear you saying is that that's really not a narrative that's been part of your country's history. And that for from what everything that I understand is that Muslims have really tried to stay out, or the Muslim community in Sri Lanka really stayed out of the conflict during the Civil War, too.
Dr. Ivor Poobalan: Yes, and I think that's why I made that point because it's not common to find that in the world. Because Islam has moved forward since its beginnings often through militant conquest, and then that's the story of India, the mobile invasions of India. But in Sri Lanka and in a few other Southeast Asian countries, Islam came through trade and so it was it was necessary for the Muslim traders to develop relationships, and those traders married Sinhalese women and that's how we have the unique Muslim community of Sri Lanka. They are called Moors because that's the name the Portuguese gave them, not because they were descendants of the Moors. But they are ethnically called the Moors, but they actually a mixed race—so Arab and Sinhalese, and of course some Tamils now. They mostly speak Tamil, and have done business and you know, they have been kind of those people who live in a community and make themselves winsome.
So, if you can think of 1200 years of history and not one major incident of violence against another community, that is saying something right? So I think that's important to highlight. And in fact, I was concerned that young Muslims will be radicalized due to the growth of the extremist groups, but also because in the last few years there has been some discrimination, some targeting of Muslims. And back in 2013, I was talking about the danger of pushing the young, the youth Muslim community to the arms of extremist groups. And I feel that this is a sort of playing out of that fear that was there.
Morgan Lee: Well exactly, I was just going to say that in some ways this attack that was carried out by these very radical Islamist is going to make life a lot harder for your everyday Muslim.
Dr. Ivor Poobalan: Yes, so the everyday Muslim is going to feel very threatened and this is something that we have known with the previous conflict, and that was the experience of the Tamil community. But I'm encouraged that the Muslim leadership has come out strongly against this incident and made their statements, and I'm hoping that that will continue. We are all hoping that the Muslim leadership will take the first steps to deal with the people within their community who have been participating in this sort of extremist radical programs, bringing in teachers from outside. And so all of that will have to be—I suppose the Muslim leadership will have to take a major step, and that will be an encouragement to the others, and also in a way a deterrent towards racist, you know, the development of a racist agenda from the other community.
Caleb Lindgren: Yeah, I was impressed by the unity of response from all the Sri Lankan officials, leadership, both that governmental and civil society level. It seemed like everyone was very concerned and disturbed by what had happened, and it seemed like there was quite a bit of unity against the sort of thing. Being the case that there was a sense of pride in the peacefulness of the last 10 years, and do you feel a sense of sort of solidarity across the country in the face of all of this?
Dr. Ivor Poobalan: Definitely there is solidarity, but these kinds of incidents do tend to do that. But very quickly people return to their little enclaves or their positions, and then we're back to business as usual, which is the sad thing. Sri Lanka has a tendency towards that kind of conflictual living. I must, in case I didn't sort of quite give the right impression, in the last 10 years while there has been no war or violence of that nature, attacks on churches and so on have continued—so you would have kept abreast of some of that, you know, occasionally burning down of churches, attacking Christian congregations. In fact, when this incident took place, my first thought didn't go to Muslim radicals, because on Palm Sunday there was a major incident to do with a Methodist place of worship where the president of the Methodist Church himself was held hostage and there was a huge threat to the congregation. And on Good Friday, the Methodist Church organized as sort of a silent vigil, silent protest actually, in the capital. And we had a large number that attended that.
So my first thought was that this was a reaction to the Palm Sunday incident and the corresponding silent protest. So, that has been there, and we have also heard of radical Hindu groups that have begun to operate in the east of Sri Lanka particularly where they are strong. So that radicalization is coming from India, where the inspiration is really from the Indian groups like RSS that have been against the church. So we have a fairly volatile situation. I mustn't, you know, downplay the threat level because you have the extremist Buddhist groups that are very violent, you have new Hindu groups that have begun to take the church to task, and now this—now we have the Islamic threat.
So, it is a very interesting situation to be in but it is always—I mean, when we look at the New Testament, there is no surprise in how Jesus taught the disciples and how the apostles also taught the Church, that no matter where we are we will always have to live out our faith in the context of persecution, and resistance, and so on. So there is nothing to be surprised by, although you know in the modern world, we tend to feel entitled to have an undisturbed Christian life. But this threat level is there, and we need to figure out how do we live out our discipleship in a context such as this. So that's the challenge, and that's why I'm committed to the work of the seminary at Columbus Theological Seminary because we have students from all the denominations, we have about 700 taking classes all over the country. We have extensions everywhere with this idea that in every province—we have nine provinces in Sri Lanka—we would like to see the Church strengthened through Biblical teaching. So the pastors and Christian leaders should be really taught the scriptures so that they can respond to persecution with the right Christian spirit. And also to be wise in doing Christian ministry, because we need to be wise, as the Bible says, to know how to do ministry in this country, and to help to survive and grow.
Caleb Lindgren: As a seminary leader and as someone who preaches frequently, how are you going to counsel the Church in this time, particularly in regard to its witness? And I use the word "intentionally" with the Greek root in mind.
Dr. Ivor Poobalan: Yes, I think the Church—because of the persecution that began in the 80s, I fear that the church lost its confidence to some extent with regard to evangelism. And so we have to re-energize the church to witness no matter what. But at the same time, we have a responsibility to be peacemakers in society. And so I think the Church has to be counseled on two sides.
One, is that we have to think of the well-being of the Church. How do we control the Christian community? How do we encourage the community? How do we teach and instruct the community? That has to be done with a lot of intention, and maybe with greater sophistication and we've been doing. At the same time, the Church has its face towards the world. And there we have to be committed to continuing to witness because this Gospel is a very powerful message at a time like this. So even in the face of this situation, how will Society see us? What will they hear? This is a great platform because of the whole country—and in fact, even the world—is looking at the Church at the moment.
And I fear that sometimes, we react and say reactive things, but we should be careful to witness, and to serve, and to offer peace, and especially to demonstrate genuine forgiveness. It's not just a cliché, but we actually mean that we forgive those who have sinned against us. These are some of the important things that I think the Church needs to be prepared to do—and has been doing during these last 30 years of persecution. Many times the Church has shown its forgiving spirit and its willingness to reconcile and so on. Often times, you know, we hear Christians saying persecution makes the church grow, but that is only half-truth because in some parts of the world, as you know, persecution has wiped out Christianity.
And my understanding of the New Testament is that persecution made the New Testament church grow because the New Testament Christians practiced Biblical teaching and pastoral care. And so that is imperative: for the Church to be ensured of growth, we have to increase Biblical teaching and we have to provide pastoral care.
And so even this call, where you're calling us, calling me and talking about the situation in Sri Lanka, and the many emails that are coming, is one way that the International Church is communicating its pastoral care. That's one of the most important things in times like this. But we as a seminary also feel that this is our time to teach and to encourage Biblical teaching in all the churches. When teaching and care personal care happening, the church will grow. There is no doubt about. That's the Biblical model. The gospel will remain undefeated.