Read: What’s different about the attacks in Sri Lanka
The exact motivations of the attackers are still not known. But they may have targeted churches in part because these spaces are powerful symbols of the West. Fairly or unfairly, Sri Lankan Christians have long been associated with colonial power; today, connections to global missionary networks and massive institutions like the Roman Catholic Church compound that association. While Muslims and Christians in Sri Lanka do not have a history of mutual hostility, the general atmosphere of religious repression may have contributed to the attackers’ desire for violence. The bombings may be the latest permutation of violence in a country that is burdened with a bloody history but that has been largely peaceful in recent years. Sri Lanka has joined an expanding list of countries where churches have been twisted into a dramatic stage for ideological violence.
Sri Lankan politics have long been defined by ethnic and religious tensions that are inextricable from its colonial past. Christianity most likely arrived on the island, which sits off the southeastern tip of India, with the Portuguese in the early 16th century. A century and a half later, the Dutch took control, followed by the British, who governed the country until 1948.
For the people who remained on the island, then known as Ceylon, after its independence was declared, this was a moment of trying to figure out what Sri Lankan identity was, Shobhana Xavier, an assistant professor at Queen’s University in Ontario who studies global Islam, told me.
Two predominant ethnic groups, the Sinhalese and the Tamils, whose members are Hindu, Muslim, and Christian, wrestled over questions of “who gets to be in the majority, who has rights, and who gets to be seen as Sri Lankan,” she said. This, in broad terms, was the basis for the civil war that began in earnest several decades later. Because the conflict was primarily driven by ethnic divisions, added Bauman, Christians were not necessarily implicated on one side or the other.
This history matters, because it makes Christians unlikely targets. Instead, the attackers may have bombed churches, along with public sites like hotels, because these sites are associated with the West. “In general, I would say that Christianity in Sri Lanka suffers under the stigma of a historical connection with colonialism,” Bauman said. “It’s always easy for opponents of Christianity to tar them in that way, and also, recently, with their association with the power and wealth of Western Christians.”
The attackers may have also associated Christians with the ruling forces in Sri Lanka. Despite violence that is sometimes directed against Christians, especially in new churches planted by missionaries, leaders of the Sri Lankan Catholic Church have attempted to avoid conflicts with the Buddhist majority, often by trying to support their political agenda, Timothy Shah, the director of the South and Southeast Asia action team at the Religious Freedom Institute, told me. “The Catholic Church is a very powerful element of the cultural, religious, and political establishment of Sri Lanka, going back to the time of Portuguese colonial rule,” he said. And yet, Christians, along with the country’s Muslim minority, have long been marginalized by the Sinhalese Buddhist majority. “They’re both portrayed … as foreign religions that don’t have deep indigenous roots in Sri Lanka,” Bauman said. “They’re both considered a threat because of their alleged growth,” ostensibly driven by birthrates and proselytism. In the eyes of Buddhist leaders, this could upset the country’s demographics and displace the Sinhalese majority.