Calls for peace after escalation of religious intolerance following Sri Lanka church attacks

Security personnel stand guard outside St. Anthony Shrine, two days after a string of suicide bomb attacks on churches and luxury hotels across the island on Easter Sunday, in Colombo, Sri Lanka April 23, 2019.(Photo: Reuters/Dinuka Liyanawatte)

Attacks on Muslims in the wake of the Easter suicide bombings on churches and hotels are "pushing Sri Lanka backwards", the United Nations has warned.

There are reports that retaliatory attacks have been carried out on mosques and Muslim-owned businesses following the terrorist attacks last month that killed over 250 people, many of them Christians who were attending Easter Sunday services. 

The north-west has been particularly badly affected by the ensuing violence, with Muslims attacked in Kurunegala, Gampaha and Puttalam districts.

In one of the worst incidents, police reported on Monday that a 45-year-old Muslim man had been killed by a mob after it stormed his carpentry workshop.  

A statement of concern from the UN said that nationalist and extremist views on identity were growing in influence and putting religious minorities at risk.

It is calling upon the Sri Lankan government to take urgent action to put a stop to the violence and work to support peaceful relations between the country's diverse ethnic and religious groups. 

In the statement, the UN said that the Sri Lankan government needed to show "that it will not tolerate the spread of prejudice and hate among groups within its population". 

"It is in the interest of all ethnic and religious groups in Sri Lanka, as well as the Government, the opposition, civil society and the security sector, to work collaboratively in taking appropriate action and immediately stop these hateful attacks," said the statement issued jointly by Adama Dieng, UN Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, and Karen Smith, UN Special Adviser on the Responsibility to Protect.

"The country is trying to move forward from a traumatic period of inter-ethnic armed conflict, but these attacks are pushing Sri Lanka backwards. If not adequately dealt with, the recent violence has the potential to escalate even further."

They continued: "Sri Lanka has a pluralistic society. To be a Sri Lankan is to be a Buddhist, to be Hindu, to be a Muslim, to be a Christian.

"All these communities are entitled to their identity, to freely exercise their religion and to live in peace and security in Sri Lanka, as recognized by the country's Constitution. We call on all Sri Lankans to respect one another."

The Sri Lankan religious liberty campaign group Minor Matters has also condemned the violence. In a statement, it appealed to Sri Lankans to refrain from violence and respect the law as it warned that acts of retaliation were "plunging our nation further into chaos". 

"In a time when our nation is facing a crisis, we can ill afford such senseless and brutal acts of aggression, which only serve in heightening tensions and increasing polarisation between communities," it said.

The National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka said that the attacks on Muslims had left the country in a state of shock and only served to polarise communities further.

It has called for an investigation into the attacks to bring the perpetrators to justice and urged people to turn away from violence and "hateful discourse".

"Let us transcend hate, fear and suspicion toward one another and make every effort in compassion and love to understand, reconcile, and move forward together as one nation," it said. 

"Let us especially consider those feeling vulnerable, afraid and marginalised during this time, extending to them our solidarity and support in the aftermath of these senseless acts of violence." 

Mervyn Thomas, chief executive of the UK-based Christian Solidarity Worldwide, called on the Sri Lankan government to end the "culture of impunity" surrounding the acts of religious intolerance. 

"CSW also calls on the international community to assist Sri Lanka in the combatting of religious intolerance wherever possible," he added.