ROME – To be blunt about it, worshippers yesterday at Sacred Heart of Jesus Cathedral in Makassar, the capital of Indonesia’s South Sulawesi province, got lucky. When two suicide bombers detonated their devices outside a Palm Sunday Mass, they were the only ones who died, in part because a security guard had prevented them from entering the church’s compound.
At least twenty people were wounded, but because no one other than the attackers actually lost their lives, the incident probably won’t cause much of a ripple in global interest.
It doesn’t really compare to the Easter Sunday bombings in Sri Lanka two years ago, for instance, which targeted Christian churches and high-end hotels, leaving 269 people dead and hundreds more injured. In that case, world leaders one after the other issued statements about the violence, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel calling it “shocking.”
In reality, however, the only shocking thing about what happened in Sri Lanka two years ago – or, for that matter, what almost happened in Indonesia yesterday – is precisely that it wasn’t shocking at all.
Every year on major Christian feast days, somewhere in the world, Christians will be killed for no reason other than that they chose to attend religious services. Because Christmas and Holy Week are the holiest periods on the Christian calendar, churches tend to be especially full, presenting ripe targets for anti-Christian hatred.
Even in the Covid era, to the extent Christians can congregate at all for religious services, more of them are likely to do so this week than during any other period of the year. That’s a feature of Christian life terrorists have long understood and exploited.
In 2012, a car bomb exploded near a church in Kaduna, Nigeria, while Easter was being celebrated, killing 41 people in an attack suspected of being the work of the Islamist extremist group Boko Haram. In 2016, 75 people died and more than 300 were injured when bombs exploded in a park in Lahore, Pakistan, as Christians were celebrating after Easter services. The following year, Coptic Christians in Egypt were forced to scale back Easter celebrations after bombings at two churches on Palm Sunday the week before, which opens the Easter observances, killed more than 40 people.
A similar pattern applies to Christmas. In 2011, for example, Boko Haram claimed responsibility for bombings across Nigeria on the holiday, including an attack on St. Theresa Catholic Church in Madalla, on the outskirts of Nigeria’s capital city, Abuja, that left 37 people dead and 57 injured.
In yesterday’s incident, Indonesian police announced late Sunday night that the two attackers were suspected members of Jamaah Ansharut Daulah (a term meaning “Partisans of the Islamic State”), an extremist group also blamed for another church bombing in Indonesia in 2018 that left 28 people dead (including three suicide bombers), and a church assault in the Philippines in 2019 that killed twenty people and left more than a hundred injured.
Police identified the Palm Sunday attackers in Makassar as a man and a woman. While they didn’t provide further details, it was a husband-and-wife team of suicide bombers that detonated at the cathedral in the Philippines two years ago.
Although Christians are simply one among a staggering set of vulnerable minority groups around the world exposed to hatred and persecution, there remains a sort of wall of silence around their suffering. In part, that’s because the people who set the tone in global politics and the media generally live in the affluent West, where Christians generally don’t encounter much physical persecution. In New York, or Toronto, or London, Christians generally don’t take their lives in their hands for the mere act of going to church.
That neglect reflects a terribly superannuated grasp of the Christian map. More than two-thirds of the 2.3 billion Christians today live outside the West, most in developing societies and often as not only religious but also ethic and linguistic minorities. Most are poor, and the majority are women.
Because of that, and because Christians are the largest religious group on the planet, the raw numbers in terms of anti-Christian persecution are staggering. Estimates of how many Christians are killed yearly around the world because of their faith vary widely, from thousands to tens of thousands, but it’s a statistical certainty that at any hour of the day, a Christian somewhere is being martyred.
As we enter Holy Week this year, what does all this suggest?
For political leaders and police officials, it implies a stepped-up commitment to supplying security at Christian holy sites. An untold number of lives were saved yesterday by the church security guard in Indonesia who blocked the entry of the suicide bombers, but that was the local Catholic cathedral, where the bishop resides, which had the wherewithal to make its own security arrangements. Not every church, even some of the most crowded, will have those resources, and it’s up to local public authorities to fill the gap.
For Christians, especially those of us who live relatively comfortable lives in the West, Holy Week is also an annual invitation to deepen our understanding of the realities facing our sisters and brothers in the faith around the world.
Spiritually, Holy Week is about the agony of Good Friday giving way to the joy of Easter Sunday. At a human level, however, many Christians living in dangerous neighborhoods today might be forgiven for feeling stuck on Good Friday, and wondering when Easter will come.
Follow John Allen on Twitter at @JohnLAllenJr.