By Hannah Beech, Dharisha Bastians
and Kai Schultz
April 21, 2019
The bombings of three churches in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday highlighted
the vulnerability of Christians in Asia.CreditCreditReuters
The deadly attacks in Sri Lanka on Sunday
highlighted how easily religious coexistence can be ripped apart in a region
where secularism is weakening amid the growing appeal of a politics based on
ethnic and sectarian identity.
In India, the country’s governing
right-wing Hindu party is exploiting faith for votes, pushing an us-versus-them
philosophy that has left Muslims fearing they will be lynched if they walk
In Myanmar, the country’s Buddhist generals
have orchestrated a terrifying campaign of ethnic cleansing against the
country’s Rohingya Muslims.
And in Indonesia and Bangladesh,
traditionally moderate Muslim politicians are adopting harder-line stances to
appeal to more conservative electorates.
The bombings of three churches in Sri Lanka
on Easter Sunday highlighted the vulnerability of Christians in Asia, where
religious minorities of many faiths have been battered by this surge of
nationalism and sectarian politics.
The explosions in Sri Lanka, which killed
over 200 people, “brought mourning and sorrow” on the most important of
Christian holidays, Pope Francis said after celebrating Mass in St. Peter’s
Square at the Vatican.
Christians make up only 6 percent of the
population of Sri Lanka, which is still emerging from the shadow of a harrowing
civil war between the Sinhalese Buddhist majority and ethnic Tamils, most of
whom are Hindu or Christian.
It is not yet clear who carried out the
bombings on Sunday, which also included raids on three high-end hotels in
Colombo, the Sri Lankan capital. But Christians were a primary target, and
their faith has been increasingly under attack by militants and politicians
across South and Southeast Asia.
Over the past year, deadly bombings of
churches by militants claiming allegiance to the Islamic State have rocked the
Philippines and Indonesia.
In India, the Hindu right, led by Prime
Minister Narendra Modi, has targeted Muslim and Christian minorities, the
latter group because of its symbolic association with British colonialism.
The ruling party in Bangladesh, the
secular-leaning Awami League, has partnered with conservative Muslim clerics
who routinely call for the persecution of religious minorities, including
In Myanmar, Christian minorities fear they
will be the next targets of the Buddhist-dominated government.
And in Sri Lanka, a toxic Buddhist
nationalist political force has agitated against minority Christians and
Muslims, dismissing them as relics of a British colonial era when the Buddhist
majority itself was repressed.
“We see how these radical Christian groups from
the West come here and try to convert Buddhists,” Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara
Thero, a hard-line Buddhist monk in Sri Lanka, said in an interview before he
was jailed for contempt of court last year. “We cannot allow this to happen
A week ago, on Palm Sunday — the beginning
of the Christian Holy Week that culminates in Easter — a mob from Sri Lanka’s
Sinhalese Buddhist majority gathered at a Methodist building in the city of
Anuradhapura, bombarding the building with stones and firecrackers and trapping
Last year, Sinhalese throngs, spurred on by
incendiary rhetoric from extremist Buddhist monks, carried out deadly attacks
on Muslims near the city of Kandy, the latest in a series of anti-Muslim riots
in Sri Lanka.
“Muslims and Christians, especially
evangelical Christians, have been facing persecution for many years in Sri
Lanka, but the scale and nature of today’s attacks are not comparable,” said
Ruki Fernando, a Roman Catholic human rights activist in Colombo.
In India, Christians constitute just 2
percent of the population. But since Mr. Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya
Janata Party came to power in 2014, space for India’s nearly 30 million
Christians has narrowed.
As part of a broader crackdown on thousands
of foreign-funded organizations, a major Christian charity, Compassion
International, was shut down in 2017 amid accusations it was masterminding
Later that year, Christmas carolers linked
to the Roman Catholic Church were assaulted by Hindus in the state of Madhya
Pradesh. Eight priests who went to the police station to help were instead
detained by the authorities. Outside the station, their car was set on fire.
In one northern Indian city, a far-right
Hindu group sent letters to schools warning administrators of repercussions if
they marked Christmas in classrooms.
Evangelical Christianity has found fertile
ground across Asia, where the rapid rate of conversions has created tensions
from India to Indonesia.
Thousands of Pakistani converts have fled
to Thailand, where they fear they could be deported at any time. Three years
ago on Easter, a suicide bomber targeted Christian faithful in a park in the
Pakistani city of Lahore, killing more than 70 people.
In Malaysia, where members of the country’s
Muslim majority are governed by Shariah law in certain legal matters, Muslims
are rarely allowed to renounce their faith.
Even in Muslim-majority Indonesia, which
held peaceful elections last Wednesday, faith-based politics have tilted the
political landscape, as the persecution of religious minorities mounts with
little pushback from moderate politicians.
Hundreds of churches have been forced to
close in Indonesia, where about 10 percent of the population is Christian.
Proselytizing is banned in the country, even though freedom of religion is
protected in the country’s Constitution.
The Christian former governor of Jakarta,
the Indonesian capital, was released this year after serving a 20 month
sentence for blasphemy, a conviction that human rights groups saw as evidence
of the rise of hard-line Islamic politics in a country that has long treasured
its multifaith heritage.
President Joko Widodo, a Muslim moderate,
failed to defend the former Jakarta governor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, who was
his onetime protégé. Surviving a political smear campaign that implied he was
an impious Muslim, Mr. Joko appears to have won a second term in this month’s
Hannah Beech reported from Jakarta,
Indonesia; Dharisha Bastians from Colombo, Sri Lanka; and Kai Schultz from New
Delhi. Ellen Barry contributed reporting.