The attacks on churches and hotels in Sri Lanka last Sunday killed more than 300 people. Christians were killed in services on Easter Sunday, the holiest day of the Christian year. Turning on my phone after two days of Yom Tov to see the terrible news, it was hard not to feel the resonances of other atrocities of this year: the mosque attacks in Christchurch, and the shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue, Pittsburgh.
Sri Lanka is no stranger to religious violence. Some of the worst terror attacks of its civil war targeted religious sites. In recent years, there have been scores of attacks on religious minorities, with churches and mosques both facing violence. But it is hard to understand Sunday’s tragedy on a local scale. Historically, Christians and Muslims have had good relations in Sri Lanka, where both minority religions straddle ethnic groups. And while National Thowheeth Jama’ath may have been the perpetrators, it is unlikely that such a small group could have coordinated on this scale without international help – whether from ISIS or elsewhere. What happened here was part of a global picture.
It can be hard to remember in Britain that Christianity is the world’s most persecuted religion. While here Christianity is the state religion, bolstered by bishops in the House of Lords, in 144 countries Christians are harassed for their beliefs. At the Council of Christians and Jews (CCJ), we encourage Jews to stand in solidarity with persecuted Christians through our ‘If Not Now, When’ campaign.
It is important to be careful in the message we take from the massacres on Sunday. Already, the tragedy is being used as political fuel to support nationalist and Islamophobic agendas. There have been some small retaliatory incidents against Muslims in Sri Lanka. Such cycles of violence and hate can lead only to more violence. Instead, we should take this moment to stand with people of all faiths, and to pledge tolerance and respect towards each other.
When people commit such atrocities in the name of religion, some argue that religion itself is the cause of violence – that secularism is the only solution. As Jews, we know that religion is so much more than this. We can look to the history of Sri Lanka itself for proof.
At the height of the Sri Lankan civil war, Catholic priests travelled across the warzones, and mediated with those on both sides. They, along with monks, imams, and other religious leaders, helped to bridge differences and to fill the administrative vacuum left by a lack of government. At a time of great troubles, religion and the religious helped to foster dialogue and to end the violence.
On each day of Pesach the Hallel prayers are said. These contain the line, “The heavens are God’s, but the earth God gave to humankind.” The earth is ours: it is our responsibility to make a just, loving, and peaceful world. This Pesach, let us grieve for those killed while observing their religion. Let us grieve for all the victims of the massacre. And let us resolve to stand together with all religious communities, and to call out prejudice and hate wherever we see it – no matter the victims.