Kansheka Tawshi, 13, died while celebrating the resurrection of Jesus Christ at St. Sebastian’s Roman Catholic Church in Negombo, Sri Lanka. She was among more than 250 people killed on Easter Sunday during a series of coordinated attacks on churches and hotels in Sri Lanka carried out by militants linked to the Islamic State.
Within a week, on the other side of the world, a small Jewish congregation in a San Diego, California, suburb was also under siege, as a 19-year-old man stormed into Chabad of Poway and shot Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein. Lori Gilbert Kaye, 60, rushed forward to protect the rabbi and was hit, eventually dying from her injuries.
The two scenes of violence, while vastly different in scope and circumstances, provide further confirmation that religious communities are in the crosshairs of extremist forces fueled by grotesque ideologies and personal grievances.
Surveying the carnage wrought by the recent lethal attacks on believers, Princeton University law professor Robert George, the former head of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, warned that the “monsters who kill those gathered for prayer” will face “God on the charge of sacrilege as well as murder.”
Across the globe, Christians are among the most persecuted religious groups facing death, imprisonment and discrimination. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom’s annual report, released April 29, singled out repressive state practices in Myanmar, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan. But the report also spotlighted threats posed by “non-state entities,” like the Islamic State, the Taliban in Afghanistan, and al-Shabab in Somalia.
These developments aren’t new. But researchers have witnessed an ominous uptick in “government restrictions and social hostilities” directed at Christians and other religious minorities, according to the Pew Research Center.
On May 2, British foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt, commenting on an interim report on religious persecution, said that global persecution of Christians is at “a near genocide levels.” The report, led by Anglican Bishop Philip Mounstephen of Truro in southern England, identified Christians as the most persecuted religious group worldwide.
Hunt criticized governments for being “asleep on the watch” and failing to address the problem because of “political correctness.” He referred to the attacks in Sri Lanka as a wake-up call.
Meanwhile, religious-freedom activists have flagged a worrying trend in Europe, where Christian and Jewish places of worship have been targeted by vandals.
Christianity in Europe has been under fire “both because of problems inherent in a multicultural situation and due to the ideological affirmation of a secularist vision, in which religions … represent a past which must be overcome,” Archbishop Paul Gallagher, the Vatican’s secretary for relations with states, said last year.
Archbishop Gallagher’s remarks help explain Western media’s weak and often incomplete coverage of problems experienced by Christians, both at home and abroad.
Initial reports on the deadly Easter Sunday bombings in Sri Lanka appeared to downplay the struggles of local Christians, who comprise about 1.5 million mostly Catholic believers, about 7% of the country’s population. By Easter Monday, however, U.S. media confirmed that Sri Lankan Christians were often harassed by Buddhist nationalists and now confronted a more dire threat in the form of Islamic militancy.
Indeed, the Islamic State’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has praised the Sri Lanka bombing campaign, justifying the carnage as a strike against “the homes of the crusaders in their Easter” and called for further attacks on Christians.
Al-Baghdadi’s defense of mass murder should be strongly repudiated by religious leaders of every faith. Likewise, they should make clear that a lethal attack on one vulnerable religious minority raises the stakes for every faith group — a message Pope Francis sought to drive home during an important global meeting of faith leaders in the United Arab Emirates in February.
The ongoing terrorist threat increases the need for vigilance in the war against hateful ideologies of all kinds, including practical steps to improve security for places of worship. Sri Lankan authorities received prior intelligence reports warning of the bombing campaign and failed to act on that vital information.
Since then, Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith of Sri Lanka has rightly called for the government to strengthen its response to Islamic extremism “as if on war footing.” He even took the painful step of temporarily closing his churches while authorities continued to hunt for militants involved in the bombing attacks.
In a parallel development, California Gov. Gavin Newsom called for improved security at places of worship in his state April 29, two days after the San Diego synagogue attack.
Yet even as Newsom pledged to add $15 million to the state budget to help faith communities hire guards, federal authorities announced that they had foiled a terror plot by a U.S. military veteran in Los Angeles.
The suspect, a recent convert to Islam, was seeking retribution for the attacks on the Christchurch mosques and planned to target churches and U.S. military bases, with the goal of killing hundreds of people.
This sobering development clarified a painful truth: Security measures, however necessary, will not be sufficient to protect congregations from violence and intolerance.
Like Robert George, we first need to strongly condemn every attack on a church, synagogue or mosque, and thus affirm the sanctity of every human life made in the image of God and each person’s sacred right to religious freedom.
We must also build bridges between faith communities and between believers and nonbelievers, as social scientist Arthur Brooks advises in his latest book, Love Your Enemies.
Brooks unabashedly celebrates Christ’s radical moral teaching: “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44). And he urges Americans to reclaim its transformative power.
Learn to tell your story to others outside your community, and listen to their stories, says Brooks. Look for common ground, but also compete in the marketplace of ideas. Avoid media that reinforces your own grievances.
In rejecting this “us versus them” mentality, we need to lead by example, and this difficult work can be inspired by the striking witness of Catholics who lost loved ones to the Sri Lanka bombings and still stand their ground, while refusing to hate their enemy.
“People are all the same, in every religion; we all have the same red blood,” Rohn Fernando, the grieving father of Kansheka Tawshi, told reporters. “We must live in peace.”
That message was echoed by Father Jude Fernando of St. Anthony’s Church — one of three Sri Lankan churches bombed on Easter Sunday, who told EWTN News Nightly, “We need to show the world that we are Catholics.” The priest pledged to remain in his church and rebuild his shattered congregation.
“This is a place of worship,” he said. “This is a house of prayer.”