By Jeffrey Gettleman and Dharisha
April 24, 2019
Auranzeb Zabi was cooking rice at a
friend’s house on Wednesday when he heard angry shouting outside, looked out
the window and saw a mob of Sri Lankan men carrying iron bars.
A day after the Islamic State claimed
responsibility for suicide bombings that killed more than 350 people; Muslims
in some areas of Sri Lanka were facing a rising backlash.
The mob surrounded the house. Mr. Zabi, a
Pakistani refugee who has lived in Sri Lanka for two years, said he grabbed his
two children, dashed into the yard and scampered over two walls before reaching
an army checkpoint.
There the mob caught up with him, he said,
and delivered a harsh beating, begging the soldiers to let them kill him. Hours
later, Mr. Zabi still looked terrified.
“When you face 100 people,” he said, and
then his voice slipped and he couldn’t finish the sentence. His eyes hardened.
“They even beat my kids,” he said.
In the town of Negombo, where an attack on
a church during Easter services killed more than 100 people, gangs of Christian
men moved from house to house, smashing windows, breaking down doors, dragging
people into the streets, punching them in the face and then threatening to kill
them, dozens of residents said. No deaths were reported, but many Muslims fear
it is only a matter of time.
If one of the bombers’ goals in
slaughtering hundreds of innocent men, women and children at hotels and churches
on Easter Sunday was to stir new religious hatred in Sri Lanka, that may now be
happening in some areas.
Despite pleas for calm from religious
leaders of all faiths, tensions are rising and fear is travelling across this
island nation like a fast-moving shadow. Many Muslims in different parts of the
country say they are lying low and avoiding public places.
Until this week, Sri Lanka didn’t have much
history of Christian-Muslim violence. The two faiths are small minorities: The
country is about 7 percent Christian, 10 percent Muslim, 13 percent Hindu and
70 percent Buddhist.
Religion was not a driving factor in Sri
Lanka’s decades-long civil war, in which ethnic tensions between the majority
Sinhalese and minority Tamils nearly tore the country apart.
During the war years, many Muslim men rose
up the ranks of the government’s intelligence services because they were known
for their fluency in Sri Lanka’s three major languages — Sinhala, Tamil and
But after the civil war ended in 2009,
militant Buddhism began to surge. Some observers have said it was as if
powerful forces in Sri Lankan politics were looking for a new enemy to fight.
Hard-line Buddhist monks targeted churches and mosques, priests and imams,
often with the tacit support of the security services.
While Muslims bore the brunt of these
attacks, Christians suffered, too, and the two communities were essentially on
the same side. But that informal alliance was seriously challenged by Sunday’s
attacks, which the authorities say were carried out by Muslim extremists,
primarily against Christians.
In an instant, everything changed again,
said Malik Farhan, another Pakistani refugee.
“We don’t feel safe anymore in Sri Lanka,”
Many Muslims have tried to help grieving
Christians, offering food and friendship, but the outreach has been
complicated. Feelings are so raw that one priest told members of a mosque to
stay away from the funerals.
On Wednesday, as Christian gangs roved
their neighbourhood, hundreds of Pakistani Muslims including Mr. Farhan and Mr.
Zabi, rushed for protection first to a police station and then to a mosque.
Soldiers and police officers guarded the mosque gates and checked the
identification of any visitors. Still, elders felt uneasy about the location.
By late afternoon a string of buses chugged
out of the mosque with every seat filled and people packed in the aisles,
instantly relocating an entire community of Muslims to small town miles away
where none had ever lived.
The Pakistani refugees are easy targets.
They look different, speak a different language and were already on unsure
footing, living in Sri Lanka as guests of the government while refugee agencies
sorted out longer-term resettlement plans.
But they are hardly the only Muslims who
About two hours away, in the town of
Bandaragama, Mohamed Iqbal, a Muslim man as Sri Lankan as anyone else, winced
as he looked at his shoe shop.
He had run Shoe Fashion for 15 years and
the few hundred dollars it generated each month supported his wife, his three
adult sons and two grandchildren. But Shoe Fashion is no more.
It was gutted by fire the night of the
suicide bombings — “obviously revenge,” a neighbouring shopkeeper said. A rock
lay on the ground that had been used to smash the lock and open the roll-top
shutter. Inside, it still smelled like char.
“Our religious beliefs could not be more
different from the Islamic State’s,” said Mr. Iqbal’s son Ifaz. “But now
everyone is looking at us as if we were the ones who bombed the churches.”
Sri Lanka is a complicated tapestry of
ethnicities and religions. Many Muslims said they have gotten used to
discrimination operating in the background, even during the peaceful times.
“Say you walk into a bank and someone sees
your beard,’’ Mr. Ifaz said. “They might make you wait, even when they don’t
In June 2014, after years of dehumanizing
speech by hard-line Buddhist monks, religious bigotry exploded. Mobs of young
Buddhist men attacked a Muslim neighbourhood in a southern town, burning down
houses, killing at least three Muslims and sending fear into just about every
Muslim household in Sri Lanka.
Police officers were accused of standing by
and sometimes even helping the Buddhist mobs. The Iqbal family wonders if the
same is happening again.
On Wednesday, officials played down reports
of violence, saying no one had been seriously hurt. The police said they were
beefing up security around mosques and in Muslim neighbourhoods, and trying to
tamp down tensions.
“But you know,” Mr. Ifaz said, “there was a
curfew the night our shop was burned. Maybe the police were there.”