NICK EICHER, HOST: It’s Tuesday, the 7th of May. Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Nick Eicher.
MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. First up: recovering from terror attacks in Sri Lanka.
It’s been a little over two weeks since suicide bombers launched a coordinated attack on Christians in that country.
The attacks targeted three churches and three luxury hotels. They killed 257 people and injured more than 500. Most of the victims died in their churches just as Easter morning services began.
EICHER: Violence in Sri Lanka is not new.
A brutal civil war that ended in 2009 claimed 100-thousand lives.
Here’s what is new: attacks by jihadist groups.
Now, Christians in the majority Buddhist country are preparing for what lies ahead.
WORLD senior editor Mindy Belz talked about recovery efforts with church leaders in Sri Lanka. She joins us now to tell what she learned.
Good morning, Mindy.
MINDY BELZ, SENIOR EDITOR: Good morning, Nick.
EICHER: Let’s begin with the day of the attacks. You talked to a man who was on his way to church that morning in Colombo when the first bomb went off. Tell us about him and what happened.
BELZ: Jeyaraj was on his way to church like many of us were on Easter morning and his church is only three blocks away from the very first bomb that went off at St. Anthony’s Catholic Church. Jeyaraj is the director of Lanka Prison Fellowship, which is probably a story all its own. He manages about 60 chaplains across 20-some prisons throughout the country and is very well connected and knows these people intimately. And he heard the bomb blast at his own church and raced over to St. Anthony’s. And what he found was obviously just devastating. He told me, “There were wounded people everywhere. A lot of people without heads. Bodies only. And some people missing hands or legs. It was very, very…” and then he paused. There was a long pause as we talked on the phone and then he said, “I don’t have words for what I saw.”
EICHER: He told you the attacks came as a complete surprise to Christians in Sri Lanka. Up to this point they have had good relationships with their Muslim neighbors. Can you give us a little background on Sri Lanka’s recent history and religious makeup?
BELZ: Sri Lanka is about 70 percent Buddhist, about 10 percent Hindu, 10 percent Christian, and 10 percent Muslim. So Muslims and Christians have tended to be persecuted alike by Buddhist and Hindu nationalist groups. But not by Muslims. And certainly not by ISIS in Sri Lanka. Church leaders that I spoke to said that they could have been ready if the government had passed along the warnings it received about the attacks, which included the actual names of the churches. The Roman Catholic Archbishop in Sri Lanka has said he would have cancelled services if he had known. But they were never put on that sort of alert.
EICHER: Now not long after the attacks, ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi released a video message. It was his first appearance since 2014. And in the video he mentioned Sri Lanka. How do the Sri Lankan attacks fit into the wider ISIS strategy?
BELZ: ISIS as a caliphate centered in Iraq and Syria was finally defeated two months ago. Everyone has wondered what happened to Baghdadi and now we know he’s alive, which is very significant. What the video after the Sri Lanka attacks announced was a new strategy, with Islamic State provinces in Africa and places like Sri Lanka, which are directly mentioned—as you said—being sort of the new focus for the Islamic State’s leadership. And I believe Christian believers may be more vulnerable than ever, because ISIS no longer rules the headlines and no longer has the same focus of world leaders.
EICHER: Given the likelihood of future attacks, churches are now starting to think about security. Tell us what you’ve learned about those efforts and what the government’s done so far to prevent further bloodshed.
BELZ: Well the first thing is that they shut down services and most churches have not met since those attacks in their formal places of worship. That’s significant because that, as we know, is a loss of witness in an entire country. But underneath that is a real resilience and a real determination to come back with public worship. And that all underscores, again, the intent of the believers in Sri Lanka not to go into hiding because of what’s happened to them. At the same time, a very big piece of recovery is going to be financial aid, covering funeral expenses for so many people who’ve been killed, helping families—so many families have lost their breadwinners—covering ongoing medical needs. I spoke to a number of people who said that we’re really looking at advanced medical care with a number of the wounded victims being amputees, being brain injury victims, and tragically just a lot of long-term care.
EICHER: One of the people you talked to for your story is Ajith Fernando, a popular author and speaker many American Christians know who was director of Youth for Christ in Sri Lanka. He told you something interesting about his primary task following the attacks.
BELZ: Ajith Fernando went on national television and national radio shortly after the attacks and he told me that he felt like it was his duty to help Christians “know how to think” following the attacks. And that included a number of things that I think are helpful for all of us: taking time to lament this incredible tragedy, recognizing that people are not only physically wounded but emotionally scarred, and that they need practical and solid Biblical teaching to help them through this, and then the whole idea of practicing restraint. He said, ”the church has to work to make sure this is not an occasion for religious hostility,” but “an opportunity for witness.” I think those are good words.
EICHER: Mindy Belz is senior editor for WORLD Magazine. Thanks for joining us today!
BELZ: Thank you, Nick.