The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Christianity under attack? Sri Lanka church bombings stoke far-right anger in the West.

Members of the Pakistani Christian minority and Muslim clerics light candles on April 22, 2019, in Lahore, Pakistan, to commemorate the victims of the Sri Lanka blasts. (Rahat Dar/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

Sunday’s bombings in Sri Lanka marked the country’s deadliest violence in a decade, leaving 290 dead and more than 500 injured. But the attacks, which targeted a religious minority in a predominantly Buddhist country, also resonated abroad — especially in Europe.

To some, it was further proof that Christians in many parts of the world are under attack. Several churches were targeted in Sunday’s bombing attacks, along with hotels and a banquet hall. At one Catholic church in Negombo, more than 100 people were killed. The attack took place on Easter, one of the most important dates on the Christian calendar.

“My thoughts are once again with the persecuted Christians around the world,” Marine Le Pen, president of France’s far-right National Rally party, wrote in a tweet on Monday. Those who died on Sunday were “targeted for their faith,” she added.

Le Pen, like some other European far-right leaders, had initially offered only vague condolences to victims of the bombings on Sunday. However, after Sri Lankan officials blamed a local Muslim militant group, National Thowheed Jamaath, for the attack on Monday, European far-right groups and activists began to describe the attacks in specifically religious terms.

Coordinated explosions targeting churches and hotels in Sri Lanka killed at least 311 people and injured more than 500 on April 21. (Video: Joyce Lee, Drea Cornejo, JM Rieger/The Washington Post, Photo: Asanka Brendon Ratnayake/For The Washington Post/The Washington Post)

Regional branches and sites associated with Germany’s far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party framed the Sri Lankan bloodshed as an attack “against us Christians,” even though the party officially claims to be open to members of all religions, including Jews and Muslims.

Local party branches in the city of Solingen and eastern Germany lashed out at journalists for initially refraining to establish a link to Islamist terrorism. Some far-right groups claimed hypocrisy and double standards, arguing that attacks on Christians failed to receive the same response as attacks on Muslims.

Social media accounts that appeared to be associated with supporters of far-right groups drew connections to the Christchurch attacks, arguing that shooting sprees at two mosques in New Zealand were condemned as anti-Muslim attacks early on, whereas governments and media outlets were more cautious in the case of Sri Lanka.

Katie Hopkins, a British writer and provocateur, complained on Twitter that American liberal figures such as former president Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were not using the word “Christian” to describe those killed in the church bombings. She argued that Sadiq Khan, the Muslim mayor of London, had stepped up police patrols at British mosques after the Christchurch attack.

But after Sri Lanka, Khan offered “thoughts & prayers,” Hopkins wrote, echoing the much-criticized language of American politicians after mass shootings.

American far-right activists offered their own responses. “Followers of Jesus worldwide are being killed and otherwise terribly persecuted every day,” Frank Gaffney, a former Reagan administration aide now best known for his anti-Muslim rhetoric, said on his radio show. “All too often, their losses go unremarked.”

Similar sentiments were stated on a page on Reddit devoted to support for President Trump, with multiple posts criticizing Obama and Clinton for using the phrase “Easter worshipers” rather than Christians.

The theme of Christianity under attack has been a recurring one for many activists in the United States and Europe. Gaffney drew criticism for linking a devastating fire at Paris’s Notre Dame Cathedral last week to attacks on “Christian houses of worship” in France and what he suggested was a Muslim-led campaign against Christianity.

French government statistics do show hundreds of incidents of vandalism against churches last year, although the vast majority of acts were minor. Officials later confirmed that the fire that destroyed Notre Dame was accidental.

The Sri Lankan government has responded cautiously to Sunday’s attack, initially refusing to speculate about the perpetrators and shutting down social media in an apparent bid to quell conspiracy theories. Health Minister Rajitha Senaratne told reporters on Monday that National Thowheed Jamaath was responsible and that it may have been working with a foreign network.

But no group has come forward to claim the attacks yet. In contrast, after the Christchurch attack, suspected perpetrator Brenton Tarrant was quickly caught alive; he left a lengthy manifesto explicitly outlining his far-right, anti-Muslim motives for the shootings, a document that circulated within hours of the attack.

Less than 8 percent of Sri Lankans are Christian, with the vast majority of them Roman Catholic; 12.6 percent are Hindu, and 9.7 percent are Muslim, while the remaining majority are Buddhist, according to the country’s 2012 census. The civil war that wreaked havoc in Sri Lanka for decades before finally ending in 2009 was based generally around nationalism and ethnic identity rather than religion.

Although Christian minorities are targeted around the world, analysts say that the vast majority of terrorism victims globally are Muslims. But Gerard Batten, the current leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party, argued Monday that Western officials pay less attention to Christian deaths because they worry about how Muslims would react.

It’s “not because the World thinks [Christians] matter less but because the World does not fear them, as it does the ‘religion of peace,'” Batten, a member of the European Parliament, wrote on Twitter.