Isis says it was behind Easter Day massacre

Target: Sri Lanka's Christian minority makes up just 7% of the 21 million population. © Getty

Islamic State admitted responsibility yesterday for the Easter Day bombings of churches and hotels in Sri Lanka that killed at least 321 people, including 45 children and eight Britons.

The group released a video showing eight men it claimed were the suicide bombers swearing allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Isis leader. The men, dressed in black robes and chequered grey and white head-scarves, clasp hands in a circle while chanting their “baya”, or oath.

The men are masked except for Zahran Hashim, their apparent leader and the preacher for the previously little-known militant group National Thowheeth Jamaath (NTJ). The Sri Lankan authorities say that the NTJ is likely to have been responsible.

It remains unclear how Mr. Zaharan, leader of a local group known for little more than defacing Buddhist statues, could have organised and executed such a devastating, sophisticated attack. But Indian officials said Tuesday that they had been watching him since last year as a suspected online recruiter for the Islamic State.

Some Sri Lankan officials speculated that the attacks had been retaliation for the mosque massacres in New Zealand last month. But there was no corroborating evidence to support this.

However the attack does fit a pattern of Easter attacks on Christians. In Egypt, on Palm Sunday 2017, Islamic State suicide bombers murdered 45 people in two Coptic churches. In Pakistan, in 2016, a suicide bomber killed 75 Christians celebrating Easter at a public park. In Nigeria, on Easter Sunday 2012, a suicide bomber killed 38 Christians outside a church.

According to the charity Open Doors, we are living in a time when persecution against Christian believers is the highest in modern history. Every day a staggering 11 Christians are killed for their faith in the top 50 countries ranked on the Open Doors watch list.

In Saudi Arabia, to take one example of many, churches are banned and Christians cannot practice their faith in public. In a 2016 interview with the New York Times, the country’s Grand Mufti, Abdulaziz al-Sheikh, declared Christianity “not a religion.”

“I am a Muslim, and I consider myself to be on the left,” writes journalist Mehdi Hasan, “ but I’m embarrassed to admit that in both Muslim and left circles, the issue of Christian persecution has been downplayed and even ignored for far too long.”

Why the silence?

Does Christianity have an image problem? As the priest Giles Fraser has said, do we tend to associate Christianity with popes and their armies, with crusades and inquisitions, with antisemitism, British imperialism, Trump supporters and abortion protesters?

And perhaps we don’t want to talk about Christian persecution because we fear that it could easily be used as an alibi for Islamophobia. Is it simply easier to fall silent about the murder of Christians than to be seen to side with those racists who blame Muslims for everything?

You Decide

  1. In your experience is religion the main cause of persecution?
  2. Does Christianity have an image problem?

Activities

  1. Draw a map of Sri Lanka, colouring in the distribution of the four main religions.
  2. Write a short summery of Article Nine of the Human Right Act which protects freedom of thought, belief and religion.

Some People Say...

“We are living though one of the most serious phases of Christian persecution in history, and most people refuse to acknowledge it”

Giles Fraser, writer and priest

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
The death toll has risen to at least 321. Unicef, the United Nations’ children agency, said at least 45 of those killed were children. The attacks took place at three churches and three hotels on Sunday morning in three separate cities across the island. Two more explosions happened in the afternoon in and around Colombo, one at a small guesthouse and the other at what was the suspects’ apparent safe house.
What do we not know?
The fate of Zahran Hashim, the leader of National Thowheeth Jama’ath. Why the authorities failed to take substantial steps to try to prevent an attack after receiving reports of an imminent threat ten days earlier.

Word Watch

National Thowheeth Jamaath
The group promotes an "Islamist terrorist ideology". The director of the International Centre for the Study of Violent Extremism said that it "aims to spread the global jihadist movement to Sri Lanka and to create hatred, fear and divisions in society.”
Open Doors
This is now a major charity working in over 60 countries, supplying Bibles, training church leaders, providing practical support and emergency relief, and supporting Christians who suffer for their faith.