The message of Easter is a message of hope – that most vital yet fragile of qualities, both an instinct and a choice. The devastating blasts that tore through multiple sites in and near Colombo and a church in Batticaloa in eastern Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday could hardly be crueller. More than 200 people were killed and hundreds more wounded.
That three Catholic churches were struck on the most important day in the Christian calendar, as well as three hotels, speaks for itself. Two more blasts appear to have occurred as the police pursued suspects. Yet it is much too early to discern the precise motivations of the bombers, and it would be not only foolish but also potentially dangerous to speculate in a country with such a complex and troubled history.
What is clear is that whoever was responsible was willing to claim the lives of people of all faiths; of children as well as adults; of Sri Lankans and foreigners. What is also clear is that in sowing terror, they hoped to reap division in a country that has endured horrific violence in the past, and that is home to multiple ethnicities and religions, with the Buddhist majority living alongside sizable Hindu, Muslim and Christian minorities.
This is by far the worst incident of violence since the long and brutal civil war with Tamil insurgents, in which so many civilians died, ended a decade ago. It is a shocking and heartbreaking blow to the hopes of an island still striving for a lasting peace, amid enduring tensions. “I thought Sri Lanka had left all this violence behind us,” said one survivor, voicing a common sentiment. It also occurs at a time of political instability. Last year’s standoff between the president, Maithripala Sirisena, and Ranil Wickremesinghe, the prime minister, concluded with the latter’s reinstatement. But if the immediate constitutional crisis ended, the tensions underlying it were in no way resolved. A presidential election is due this year, and a general election in 2020.
Now Mr Wickremesinghe is overseeing the emergency response, a month after he offered his condolences to New Zealand in the wake of the mosque attacks that claimed 50 lives in Christchurch. That attack itself bore terrible echoes of the shooting a few months earlier at a synagogue in Pittsburgh, which claimed 11 lives.
Sri Lankan police say they have already arrested suspects. To bring the perpetrators to justice is, of course, essential. But one danger is that officials’ rush to do so – and to show that they are doing so – may itself bring injustice. In a country with a history of security forces committing abuses with impunity, there is particular reason to be concerned.
Injustice and hate can manifest themselves anywhere. So too can love and faith, whether of the sacred or profane variety. So far, politicians from all parts of society have banded together to call for unity and strength. There is hope in that shared message, and in the similar sentiments voiced by leaders from around the world, even if in truth some of the speakers have been responsible for exploiting and encouraging divisions. There is hope in the sight of Sri Lankans of all ethnicities and religions pulling together, and in the immense rush of wellwishers to donate blood and aid survivors in other ways.
It is not only Sri Lankans and Catholics who feel the pain of this atrocity, and fear the further damage it could spawn. It is not only those of the Christian faith who believe that, even in the harshest of times, hope can and must endure.