Sri Lanka must tackle the religious intolerance that fuelled the Easter attacks

Religious intolerance has been on the rise in the country since the end of its civil war.

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This Easter Sunday, a message of life, hope and joy for Christian worshippers was marred by the news of a series of  explosions targeting churches and hotels in Sri Lanka, striking a devastating blow to the country’s 1 million-strong Christian community as they gathered to worship.

At the time of writing, at least 290 people have been killed and approximately 500 injured. The government has imposed a curfew ahead of a national day of mourning scheduled for 23 April.

The last time a similar curfew was imposed was in February 2018 when the government announced a ten-day state of emergency in the wake of communal violence between Buddhist nationalists and the Muslim community in Digana and Teldeniya, in the Kandy administrative districts. The violence resulted in one death, the torching of dozens of houses and businesses belonging to the Muslim community, and the destruction of at least four mosques.

Attacks on members of religious minority groups in Sri Lanka, including Hindus, Muslims and Christians, are nothing new. Religious intolerance has been on the rise in the country since 2000, particularly since the end of the civil war in 2009. Acts of violence motivated by religious hatred persist in an environment of impunity as the authorities are often reluctant to curb Buddhist nationalists, and statistics on religious discrimination and harassment are often denied or ignored.

When prominent human rights lawyer Lakshan Dias quoted statistics from the National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka (NCEASL) indicating that Christians were subject to 195 incidents of discrimination, intimidation and violence between 2015 and June 2017, he was threatened with disbarment unless he retracted his comment and apologised within 24 hours.

The situation for religious minorities in Sri Lanka has also drawn the attention of the UN Human Rights Council. In 2014, it adopted a resolution on reconciliation, accountability and human rights in Sri Lanka, noting the “significant surge in attacks against members of religious minority groups in Sri Lanka, including Hindus, Muslims and Christians”.

The scale of the Sri Lanka Easter bombings is shocking, as are reports that the authorities had received prior warning of planned attacks and did not act – allegations that must be thoroughly investigated. They point to a troubling rise of religious intolerance in Sri Lanka, with regional implications.

Religious intolerance is a global problem. National outbreaks often have international connections. Almost a year ago, a family of six in Indonesia carried out three church bombings in Surabaya, Java, one of the deadliest in the country in a decade, killing 13 and injuring more than 40. The family had links to Islamic State in Syria.

Emerging reports indicate that a little-known local Islamist group called National Towheed Jamath (NTJ) carried out the Sri Lanka attacks; cabinet spokesman Rajitha Senaratne told the BBC that the authorities believe the Islamist group received international help.

It remains to be seen what will come of the ongoing investigations into the bombings, the perpetrators and any international links they may have. In addition to dealing with this tragedy, the Sri Lankan government must also tackle the underlying religious intolerance that fuelled these attacks.

In 2015, Sri Lanka co-sponsored a resolution at the UN Human Rights Council entitled “promoting reconciliation, accountability and human rights in Sri Lanka”. The government pledged to implement a robust transitional justice process and reaffirmed that “all Sri Lankans are entitled to the full enjoyment of their human rights regardless of religion, belief or ethnicity”.

It is time for the government of Sri Lanka to fulfil its obligations under this 2015 resolution and bring an end to the culture of impunity surrounding acts of religious intolerance.

The right to freedom of religion or belief is a counterweight to religious intolerance and must be upheld and promoted in Sri Lanka and across the world. It is a right for everyone – whether they have a religion or belief or not. The Sri Lankan Easter bombings are a reminder that the problem of religious intolerance cannot be isolated to one particular country or region – it a global concern that touches us all.

Steven Selvaraj is South Asia team leader for CSW, a human rights organisation specialising in freedom of religion.