ROME – Sadly enough, there’s now an ugly and utterly predictable dynamic on Easter Sunday: Somewhere in the world, full churches will be attacked and some number of Christians will die for no other reason than that they chose to attend services to celebrate what is supposed to be the faith’s great celebration of life.
Today, it happened in Sri Lanka, where, as of this writing, at least 138 people have been killed and more than 560 injured after coordinated bomb blasts hit a number of high-end hotels and churches across the country.
At St. Sebastian’s in Katuwapitiya, located in a heavily Catholic neighborhood north of Colombo known as “little Rome,” more than 50 people had been killed, a police official told Reuters, with pictures showing bodies on the ground, blood on the pews and a destroyed roof.
In all, three churches and three hotels were struck in what seemed a calculated attack on “foreigners” – both the sorts of foreign visitors who stay in four and five-star hotels, and faiths perceived as “foreign” by nationalists and extremists.
Though there were no immediate claims of responsibility for the attacks, the country is still scarred by a 30-year civil war that ended in 2009 driven by Tamil separatists. The country is also home to strong Buddhist extremist movements, under the slogan “to be Sri Lankan is to be Buddhist,” as well as growing Hindu extremist movements in the eastern region where the Hindu population is concentrated.
Roughly 70 percent of Sri Lanka’s population of 21 million is Buddhist, with Hindus representing approximately 13 percent and Christians 10 percent.
Tragically, such violence on one of the holiest days of the Christian calendar is hardly new. In 2012, for instance, shootings by Boko Haram gunmen in Nigerian churches left 38 people dead. Last year four members of a Catholic family were killed in Pakistan, while one pastor in India suffered a severe head injury when right-wing Hindu extremists stormed his church. Another lost several fingers when he was assaulted with an axe.
In Easter season 2015, an attack on the University of Garissa in Kenya targeting Christian students left 148 people dead. In 2016, 75 people died and at least 300 were injured when bombs exploded in a park in the heavily Christian neighborhood of Lahore in Pakistan as people were celebrating after Easter services. In 2017, Coptic Christians in Egypt were forced to trim back Easter services and beef up security after bombings at two churches on Palm Sunday left 45 people dead.
It’s no accident these attacks occur on major feast days. In addition to the shock value of striking Christians on a day considered especially sacred and celebratory, churches tend to be overflowing on holy days and thus represent especially target-rich environments.
The same logic, of course, also applies to Christmas. In 2013, for instance, a bombing at St. Theresa Catholic Church in Madalla, on the outskirts of Abuja, the capital city of Nigeria, left 37 people dead and 57 injured. Among the casualties were infants who are now buried in a small, haunting memorial outside the church.
All this is part of the broader pattern of anti-Christian violence around the world, a phenomenon I’ve described as a “global war on Christians.” World Watch International, a Protestant watchdog group, estimates there are at least 200 million Christians today, virtually all of them in the developing world in regions where they live as minorities, at risk of physical assault, arrest, torture, imprisonment and even death, for no other reason than their religious affiliation.
Of course, Christians are hardly the only religious constituency at risk, as the recent shootings in mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, which left 50 people dead, remind us.
Yet for a long time, a wall of silence surrounded anti-Christian persecution, in part because Westerners accustomed to thinking of Christianity as rich, powerful and socially dominant had a hard time wrapping their minds around the fact that this was a peculiarity of Western culture, not a universal constant.
ISIS punctured the myth that Christians can’t be victims of religious persecution, but left the impression that such violence specifically targeting Christians is confined to the Middle East and perpetrated almost exclusively by Islamic extremists.
To be sure, from Nigeria to Iraq and Syria to Pakistan and beyond, Islamic jihadism is a real and present danger to Christians and other groups. Violence against Christians can come from multiple sources, including radical social movements of all sorts and, in some cases, even the state itself.
Right now, the low-end estimate for the number of new Christian martyrs every year is around 8,000, while the high end runs to 100,000. That works out to either one new martyr every hour, or every five minutes – in any event, a human rights scourge of astonishing proportions.
Today, Christians around the world might consider keeping these new martyrs in their prayers. Between now and next Easter, perhaps Christians can also demand that public authorities around the world take the threat seriously and help ensure that even more martyrs are added to the toll.