Sri Lanka Easter Bombings Aimed at Christians: Terrorists Described as Religious Extremists

By Patrick Goodenough | April 21, 2019 | 9:27 PM EDT

Sri Lankan security forces guard St. Anthony’s Shrine in Colombo after Sunday’s blast. (Photo by Stringer/Getty Images)

(Updated)

(CNSNews.com) – Sri Lanka police declared an overnight curfew after Easter Sunday’s deadly bombing spree targeting churches and five-star hotels. The country’s prime minister confirmed that authorities had received prior warning about the possibility of a terrorist attack.

Police say at least 290 people were killed in the coordinated blasts, some of which were carried out by suicide bombers. Most victims were Sri Lankans but several dozen foreigners also died.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo confirmed that “several U.S. citizens” are among the dead. Other nations whose nationals were killed, according to their governments, include Britain, Portugal, Turkey, the Netherlands, and China.

“These vile attacks are a stark reminder of why the United States remains resolved in our fight to defeat terrorism,” Pompeo said in a statement.

“We stand with the Sri Lankan government and people as they confront violent extremism and have offered our assistance as they work to bring the perpetrators to justice.”

More than 500 people were injured in the eight explosions, most of which occurred in Colombo, the capital and largest city of the Indian Ocean island nation.

A possible ninth blast was averted when a pipe bomb hidden in a bag near the main international airport was found and destroyed by air force personnel.

According to South Asia terrorism monitors, this was the first terrorist attack in Sri Lanka since the country emerged from a long and deadly civil war in 2009 between the majority ethnic Sinhalese Buddhist majority and the predominantly Hindu Tamil ethnic minority.

State minister of defense Ruwan Wijewardene described the perpetrators as religious extremists – without identifying the religion – and said most of the explosions were caused by suicide bombers.

“We shall not give any chance for these extremist groups to operate,” he told reporters. “We will go after them, whatever religious extremism that they are following,” he added, saying the perpetrators had been identified and would be apprehended shortly. By early Monday the number of suspects in custody had reached 24, police confirmed.

Christians and tourists were the intended victims of the terrorists, who struck on the most significant day of the Christian calendar.

The first bombs exploded in three churches, two Roman Catholic and one Protestant, during Easter morning services. They are the St. Anthony’s Shrine in Colombo, St. Sebastian’s Church in Negombo, a prominent Catholic town north of the capital, and Zion Church, an evangelical denomination in Batticaloa on Sri Lanka’s east coast.

The two Catholic churches accounted for the greatest loss of life of all of the buildings hit.

Also targeted were four hotels in Colombo – the Cinnamon Grand, the Shangri-La, the Kingsbury, and the Tropical Inn. Hours after the initial blasts there was another explosion at a housing complex in a Colombo neighborhood, which was reportedly detonated by a suicide bomber as police closed in on suspects. Seven suspects were arrested at that property.

Sri Lanka Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe in a later statement confirmed that “three brave police officers … sacrificed their lives in the process of apprehending some of the suspects.”

Wickremesinghe said authorities had received prior information on the possibility of an attack but that neither he nor the cabinet had been “adequately informed.”

“A serious issue is that though information been received earlier not enough attention had been paid,” the national business news service Economy Next quoted him as saying. “We have to look deeper into this.”

Aftermath of the bombing at the St. Sebastian’s Church in Negombo. (Photo by Stringer/Getty Images)

Religious tensions

Sri Lanka has a population of 22.5 million and is a little larger in size than West Virginia.

According to U.S. government data, only around seven percent of the population is Christian, mostly Catholic. Buddhists account for the majority of Sri Lankans (about 70 percent), while 12 percent are Hindus, and just under ten percent are Muslims, mostly Sunnis.

Until the conflict ended in 2009, well over 60,000 people were killed in a 26-year civil war between the majority government and the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organization fighting for a separate state in the north and east of the island.

The LTTE became infamous for suicide bombings – including the use of suicide belts and ramming attacks using explosive-laden small boats – well before the tactic became more widely known as a result of the actions of al-Qaeda and other radical Sunni Islamic groups.

Last January, Sri Lankan police investigating the vandalizing of Buddhist statues arrested four men attached to a “newly-formed radical Muslim group,” Economy Next reported at the time. The arrests led to the discovery of 220 pounds of high explosive and a large number of detonators hidden in the country’s north-west.

Whoever the perpetrators turn out to be, ISIS sympathizers on social media celebrated news of the carnage, characterizing the bombings as vengeance for attacks on Muslims.

In his televised statement, Wickremesinghe pledged to “ensure that terrorism does not lift its head in Sri Lanka. We cannot allow that and we are prepared to take all measures necessary to ensure that terrorism is contained and wiped out in this country.”

He described the suspects as Sri Lankan, but also said the authorities would need the help of other governments in the region to examine the possible “overseas links of this terrorist group.”

Wickremesinghe also urged people to support the security services and “ensure there is no miscommunication which leads to other incidents” and diverts the security forces’ attention away from the investigation.

Sri Lanka has a poor record of religious tolerance. The State Department’s most recent report on international religious freedom, covering 2017, cites 97 documented attacks or incidents of intimidation targeting Christians in 2017, and reports of dozens of attacks on mosques and Muslim prayer rooms.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow

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