In most Sunday schools, the question is an academic exercise.
“How many of you are willing to die for Christ?” asked the teacher on Easter morning. Every one of the children dutifully raised their hands.
A few minutes later, the Sri Lankan class descended to Zion Church’s main service, passing through an outside courtyard where a stranger was speaking with church leaders. He had discovered there was no Easter morning Mass at the nearby Catholic church in Batticaloa, and was wondering when the service would begin here. He asked about the healing service.
Half the children died on the spot.
“All the children had responded [to their teacher’s question] by putting their hands up, and signaled their fresh dedication to Jesus by lighting a symbolic candle,” recounts a seminary leader [full testimony in sidebar below]. “For so many of those children, it would be their final act of worship.”
In total, at least 26 worshipers—including 16 children—were killed and 100 injured at Zion, a charismatic congregation in the Fellowship of Free Churches in Sri Lanka. Two Catholic churches in and near Colombo on the island nation’s opposite coast were also attacked by suicide bombers that morning, along with three hotels. The death toll currently stands at 253, revised down from 359.
But this is not the only Christian tragedy.
Sri Lankan authorities have now arrested 76 local Muslim extremists and one Syrian, placing the blame on the National Thowheeth Jama’ath (NTJ) movement. ISIS has claimed responsibility, calling it revenge for the massacre at a New Zealand mosque last month.
In response, gangs of young Christian men are now marauding Muslim neighborhoods. People have been assaulted. Shops have been destroyed. Hundreds of Pakistani refugees—mostly Ahmadis, a persecuted minority themselves—have fled the area around St. Sebastian’s, the Catholic church in Negombo where more than 100 worshipers perished.
“How we process this new reality and respond will determine the character and the witness of the Church of Jesus Christ in Sri Lanka,” Ivor Poobalan, principal of evangelical Colombo Theological Seminary, told CT.
“We are hurt. We are angry also,” stated Zion’s senior pastor, Roshan Mahesen. “But still—as the senior pastor..., the whole congregation, and every family affected—we say to the suicide bomber, and also to the group that sent the suicide bomber, ‘We love you and we forgive you. No matter what you have done to us, we love you, because we believe in the Lord Jesus Christ.
“Jesus Christ on the cross, he said, ‘Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing,’” said Mahesen. “We also, who follow the footsteps of Jesus Christ, we say, ‘For the Lord, forgive these people.’”
Sri Lanka is an odd place for Muslim-Christian tension, which was virtually unknown before the Easter bombings. An island southeast of India, the population is 70 percent Buddhist and 12 percent Hindu. Muslims constitute roughly 10 percent, and Christians 8 percent—predominantly Catholic but with a sizable Protestant majority.
Islam came in the eighth century, spread peacefully by Muslim traders. Christianity came in 1505 with the Portuguese, furthered by later colonial empires. Both religions have increasingly suffered at the hands of nationalists within local Buddhist and Hindu communities, striking at Sri Lanka’s multi-religious heritage.
The Easter Sunday massacre follows on the heels of the island’s 1983-2009 civil war, when an ethnic Tamil militia pushed for independence from the state and the Sinhalese majority. Christians fought on both sides, and up to 100,000 people were killed.
Open Doors ranks Sri Lanka No. 46 on its World Watch List of the 50 countries where it’s hardest to be a Christian.
Last year, the National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka reported 86 violations of religious freedom against Christians, and this year tallied 26 leading up to the Easter attacks. Nationwide, a church service had faced disruption each of the previous 11 Sundays.
Most Sri Lankan Buddhists are respectful of their Christian neighbors, said Poobalan, though generally ignorant of their religion. But significant numbers of conversions have irritated some, while others have been affected by propaganda that labels Christianity a “foreign” religion and a proxy for Western interests.
There may be a coming shift.
“The horrific acts have helped Buddhists see how vulnerable Christians really are, and to empathize with us,” he said.
“This may lead to an improvement of attitudes and a deeper understanding of the non-violent and service-oriented nature of Christians.”
Unfortunately, there is a growing tension between Muslims and Catholics, said Heshan de Silva, chairman of the National Christian Council of Sri Lanka. But there is also an ecumenical outpouring.
The local Muslim Council lamented “extremist and violent elements, who wish to create divides between religious and ethnic groups.” Many Muslims have joined Christians in funerals and protests, de Silva said. Buddhist monks have issued statements in support. And the coming weekend will see a joint Catholic-Protestant prayer vigil in the public square.
“Please pray for national unity,” de Silva, also president of the Sri Lanka Baptist Union, told CT. “Church premises should be a ground for healing.”
But now they may adopt a fortress mentality.
“Churches by their very nature are open places that invite the stranger to come in,” said Poobalan, citing a growing sense of Christian fear. “That the stranger might have a sinister motive poses all sorts of challenges.”
Lal Senanayake, president of Lanka Bible College and Seminary, urged churches to stay calm and forgive, yet to also be vigilant. They should develop plans to check out visitors, assign parking IDs, and monitor CCTV video feeds of the premises. Security is paramount.
He stressed that Muslims in Sri Lanka are friendly, and pillars of the business community. But he told CT he is not optimistic.
“Certainly there will be antagonism against Muslims by all other communities [Christians included], and people might start to look at them suspiciously,” said Senanayake. “The situation might get worse.”
He also warned that the Sri Lankan church faces a challenge to not sacrifice truth in favor of harmony as it enters a phase of new social understanding.
“The church has been the transforming agent of all societies in the world,” he said. “We must learn to engage not only in evangelistic activities, but in holistic mission.”
For some, this includes politics.
“Very serious questions have arisen as to why preventive action was not taken when information was available,” said Abraham Sumanthiran, an evangelical member of Sri Lanka’s parliament, addressing lawmakers.
“Those responsible for this—from the very top—must at the very least resign.”
The MP echoed frustration about the political crisis gripping Sri Lanka, as President Maithripala Sirisena feuds with Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. The president unlawfully controls the police force, Sumanthiran stated, and Muslims had previously asked for the arrest of the NTJ leader.
The prime minister denied receiving reports of extensive surveillance that intelligence services had performed on the terrorists now arrested.
But the politics of Sumanthiran, former vice president of the island’s Methodist denomination, did not neglect evangelism.
He closed his speech by urging that Muslims not be blamed for the tragedy. But he opened it by defining Easter.
“We believe in Jesus Christ, who came into this world, suffered as we do and took the worst of evil onto himself and was crucified unjustly,” he said.
“But he defeated all evil through self-sacrificial love, which is what we celebrate on Easter: Resurrection day.
“We are grieving, but we will not allow hate and revenge to overtake us.”
The Muslim MP that followed him expressed great appreciation.
“I bow to the Christian community … who have proven their magnanimity in practicing the words of the Lord Jesus Christ,” said Rauf Hakeen, the leader of the major Muslim party in parliament, quoting the biblical verse about turning the other cheek.
“By preaching calm to the bereaved Christian communities at a time of grief, [and] resisting backlash against the Muslim community living in absolute fear.”
Hakeen also praised the Catholic Archbishop of Colombo, Malcolm Ranjith, for publicly forgiving the attackers.
But in the moment of grief, Ranjith had also lashed out.
“Only animals can behave like that,” he said. He urged the government to punish them “mercilessly.”
Surekha Hulugalle, a Sinhalese expat and national leader of the Foursquare denomination in Great Britain, feared that Ranjith’s words could instigate a sense of hatred or revenge. He warned against political use being made of the tragedy, and urged the media to report responsibly.
The government acted on such fears. It withheld the identity of the attackers as long as possible, and shut down social media to prevent the spreading of rumors. Already there have been accounts that falsely suggest the attack targeted Tamil Christians rather than Sinhalese, which he and other evangelical leaders rejected.
“Sentiments such as these will only cause more harm to our nation,” Hulugalle said. “The entire nation is weeping. This is a national tragedy.”
As it is in England. Its Sri Lankan immigrant community is substantial, and where one of the attackers came for his education. In Leicester, Zion’s sister church held a memorial service for their many lost relatives.
Hulugalle was sent to the United Kingdom as a missionary by his Sri Lankan denomination, presiding now over a mix of nationalities inclusive of traditional Brits. He hopes a similar unity will prove evident back in his homeland. (Several UK churches will host a memorial service on Monday.)
“Tragedy brings us closer, and human love and compassion can rise above our differences,” he said.
“But only Christianity brings every ethnic group together.”
So while Sri Lankan Christian leaders preach calm as their youth are tempted toward radicalization, the hope of transformation hangs in the balance.
Poobalan is a witness, and a participant. The surviving Sunday school teacher in the opening anecdote is one of his almost 1,000 seminary students; a martyred pastor was another one.
“The national situation has dramatically changed,” he said, noting how this terrorist act is so out of proportion to even the rising sense of religious tension in Sri Lanka, yet becoming a mega-trend across southeast Asia.
“These unprecedented attacks have re-emphasized that our discipleship must be lived out in a broken world that lives in rank hostility towards its creator and savior.”