The mosque massacre in New Zealand, the Easter attacks in Sri Lanka and a fatal shooting at a synagogue near San Diego over the weekend are tapping into global worries about safety and tolerance.
Experts who study long-term trends of religious intolerance and violence disagree, however, on whether things are getting worse, better or generally have remained level.
Even so, religious leaders say the attacks have come at a fragile time and show how attackers tend to mimic murderous assault with massacres of their own.
Events like these [Sri Lanka terror attacks] are intended to stoke fear and division and negative feelings.
The Easter attacks happened in Sri Lanka — a Buddhist-majority country not known for religious violence or intolerance.
In San Diego, a 19-year-old man who authorities said gave himself up to police shortly after carrying out the deadly shooting is also under investigation in connection with an unsolved mosque arson.
The gunman walked into the suburban San Diego synagogue late Saturday morning, the last day of a week-long Jewish holiday, and opened fire with an assault-style rifle, killing one woman inside and wounding three others. The suspect was later identified as John Earnest, 19, of San Diego, the apparent author of a “manifesto” who claimed to have set a nearby mosque on fire last month and professed drawing inspiration from the gunman who killed nearly 50 people at two mosques in New Zealand in March.
50people lost their lives in the New Zealand mosque attack last month.
Religious institutions are losing power, and anger, tribalism and controversy boil away online every minute of the day. It’s hard to gauge or stop tensions from ballooning, they say, and the three attacks are a reminder of the risks.
Sri Lankan officials — with help from the FBI — said the attacks were carried out by the National Thowheed Jamaath, a local militant group, with suspected international assistance. “Here’s a nation that has pluralism and yet still had religious terrorism. It reminds you there isn’t one solution, no one safe place. It’s surprising,” said Ed Stetzer, who holds the Billy Graham Distinguished Chair for Church, Mission and Evangelism at Wheaton College and has trained evangelists across the world.
The attacks in Sri Lanka come as other incidents are fresh in memory.
Those include the killings of 50 people at a New Zealand mosque last month, the October 2018 killing of 11 people at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and the deaths of at least 45 people during twin Palm Sunday bombings in Egypt in April 2017.
In the US, churches and mosques have begun adding security infrastructure to their places of worship.
At the same time, there are high-level interfaith and pluralism efforts going on between Christian and Muslim leaders and groups that didn’t exist a generation ago.
Those include the creation of international religious freedom ambassadors in several Western countries, said Rabbi David Saperstein, who held that position under President Barack Obama. They also include the Marrakesh Declaration, a January 2016 statement by hundreds of Muslim religious leaders worldwide committing to the rights of religious minorities in predominantly Muslim countries. The Southern Baptist Convention, the biggest Protestant US denomination, has filed court briefs in support of religious freedom for Muslims.
253latest official death toll in Sri Lanka Easter attack.
But leaders and experts say the Easter bombings show that beyond the surface, relations — even in a place considered generally tolerant — are fragile.
Saperstein compared religious attacks to school shootings: “It becomes a pattern. Whether it really changes the way the world thinks about things? The urgency? I don’t know.”
It’s hard to know, he said, why some tragedies and some issues ignite real emotion and drive for change and why others don’t — on any issue.
“For some reason, I feel the bombing in Sri Lanka was something that felt like a bit of a turn, and I’m not sure why,” said Steve Bezner, who pastors the large evangelical Houston Northwest Church in Texas and does Muslim-Christian dialogue work around the world. Maybe it was the high body count, he said Monday, or maybe lingering fear from previous attacks like the one at Sutherland Springs, Texas, where 26 people were killed in 2017 by a gunman.
Here’s a nation that has pluralism and yet still had religious terrorism. It reminds you there isn’t one solution, no one safe place.
Bezner said that his church hosted a group of local Muslims Sunday for Easter and that he worried someone “would say something stupid” to them while they were there.
He compared Sri Lanka to the United States — a place where hypothetically the majority faith says it supports religious freedom, but “when it’s time to defend the minority, we haven’t always done so.”
Many advocates and officials with faith groups were circumspect when asked to comment Monday about political or religious implications, saying they didn’t want to inflame an already tense situation. Among them was Minhaj Hassan, spokesman for the group Islamic Relief USA. He said the group’s Sri Lanka staff will put out a combined statement with both Muslim and Christian local groups.
“Events like these are intended to stoke fear and division and negative feelings,” he said.
Franklin Graham, who runs a global ministry called Samaritan’s Purse, said that the violence was surprising to him because Christians and Muslims often side together as religious minorities in the Buddhist-majority country. “These types of attacks on Christians happen on a frequent basis,” he said, citing violence in countries such as Iraq and Indonesia. “No question, this will increase tensions between Muslims and Christians.”
Some observers, including Shaun Casey, director of Georgetown University’s Berkley Centre for Religion, Peace and World Affairs, fear the violence will feed a narrative that Christians are at war with Muslims. “What explains violence in Sri Lanka probably doesn’t explain violence in Paris,” he said. “It’s an impulse to take a global assessment or generalising that doesn’t help.”
However, Mathew Schmalz, a professor of religious studies at the College of the Holy Cross who studied Catholicism in Sri Lanka, said violence against both Muslims and Christians is a legitimate concern. “Persecution of religious minorities throughout the world is real.”