As Easter Bells were ringing out around the world, news came in of the horrific massacre in Sri Lanka. Worshippers were killed as they sang hymns on the holiest day of the year. It was not just Christians who were targeted – scores more people died when suicide bombers blew themselves up in the restaurants of hotels, just as breakfast was being served. Some of the victims were children who were queuing for a morning meal with their families.
The horrible images of the bombed out churches in Sri Lanka are reminiscent of the mosque attacks in New Zealand earlier this year. In response to the terrorism in Christchurch, many religious leaders came together, trying to halt the cycle of violence.
New Zealand’s prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, responded to the Sri Lankan bombings with a reminder that ‘in the wake of the Christchurch mosque attacks, it was the condemnation of the perpetrators of violence and a message of peace that unified us all’.
Unfortunately, a few extremists – some of them well educated and wealthy – refused to heed the call for peace. The slaughter in Sri Lanka was part of a complex plot to unleash mayhem on an unprecedented scale. Local intelligence has identified a small radical Islamic group named National Thowheed Jama’ath (NTJ) as being behind the church and hotel attacks. So-called Islamic State (IS) has also claimed responsibility, although quite how the groups are linked is unclear.
Sri Lanka became used to conflict during its civil war but the Tamil Tigers had a nationalist agenda. The new threat comes from a terror group which is international in scope and which feeds upon the hatred of
western civilisation, stirred up by the recent murderous assaults on the mosques in New Zealand. In this warped way of thinking, western families eating breakfast during the holidays are seen as legitimate targets, as are local Christians who call their Lord the Prince of Peace.
To murder someone at prayer is a blasphemous act. It shocks all those who live by faith and is equally appalling to humanists, who particularly prize the value of human life. For Asia’s leaders, the priority must be to promote greater tolerance, although unfortunately there seems to be a growing tendency to politicise religious piety.
Presidents and prime ministers whip up support by visits to temples or mosques, or pour money into religious education, which sometimes teaches that one interpretation of religion has a monopoly on the truth. This leaves Asia prone to superstition and division. And it leaves some people with the mistaken impression that those with alternative views should be suppressed or even attacked.
It is helpful to reflect on the example set by the great Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi. He often started meetings by inviting followers of different faiths to each pray according to their own tradition.
For people traumatised by violence, the concept of prayer may seem a futile response to terror. But Gandhi recognised that it is precisely because peace is so difficult that a concerted communal effort is required to channel its power. Whatever one’s own personal perspective on religion or spirituality, to strive for peace is a way of honouring the maimed and the bereaved, some of whom may never be able to sing or pray again.