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‘Shaken, but not broken’

Christians in Sri Lanka reel from Easter attacks that underscored the reach of global terror 

‘Shaken, but not broken’

St. Sebastian’s Church (Chamila Karunarathne/AP)

Six days after a massive fire blazed through the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, a gang of suicide bombers tore through Easter morning worship services in three churches on the South Asian island of Sri Lanka.

As Parisians mourned a towering symbol of their Christian history, Sri Lankans lamented a terrifying Sunday for members of their Christian minority. Dozens of other citizens and foreigners also died in the attacks that killed more than 250 people in explosions at three churches and three luxury hotels celebrating Easter festivities.

The Sri Lankan government announced it had linked the violence to a local Islamist group called National Thowheeth Jama’ath, and the Islamic State claimed responsibility for masterminding the attacks.

At the Cinnamon Grand Hotel in the capital city of Colombo, a manager told reporters that a suicide bomber detonated himself while standing in line at a breakfast buffet packed with families. Another blast ripped through the nearby Kingsbury Hotel.

Eight British nationals died in the attacks, including three from a single family at the Shangri-La Hotel. British survivor Ben Nicholson said his wife and two children died “Sunday morning while sitting at our table.”

Chamila Karunarathne/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

The explosion inside St. Anthony’s Shrine. (Chamila Karunarathne/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

At least four U.S. citizens died in the explosions, including a fifth grader from Sidwell Friends School in Washington, D.C. At least 45 children died in the series of attacks, UNICEF reported.

The Sunday morning scenes in Sri Lankan churches were simple and ordinary in the moments before the island nation endured the worst outbreak of violence since its civil war ended nearly a decade ago.

In St. Sebastian’s Church, some 20 miles north of Colombo, members of the Catholic congregation were tucked into wooden pews, saying a prayer of thanksgiving. Congregants in St. Anthony’s Shrine, the largest Catholic congregation in Colombo, were offering prayers of their own.

On the other side of the island, in the eastern city of Batticaloa, dozens of children at Zion Church were just leaving Sunday school classes and entering the sanctuary as a pastor at the evangelical congregation spoke with an unfamiliar visitor carrying a bag.

Moments later, as the clergyman walked toward the podium, he heard an ear-shattering explosion. When he turned around, what he saw stunned him: blood on the walls and bodies on the ground. “Twenty-eight people were killed,” he told The Times of India later in the day. Twelve of the dead were children leaving Sunday school.

Within minutes, an explosion at St. Sebastian’s blew out the church’s terra cotta roof and shattered the wooden pews: More than 100 people died in the blast, and survivors described blood, flesh, and shrapnel plastering the gold-tinged walls. At St. Anthony’s Shrine, a similar blast ripped through the building, leaving bodies and blood strewn through the landmark church.

Eranga Jayawardena/AP

Sri Lankan soldiers secure the area around St. Anthony’s Shrine. (Eranga Jayawardena/AP)

It was a stunning moment for Sri Lankan Christians, who make up less than 10 percent of the population in the Buddhist-majority nation. Operation World reports Catholics compose about 7 percent of the population and evangelicals make up less than 2 percent.

That’s a 13-fold increase for evangelicals from 1960 to 2010. Operation World reports a growing movement of churches and denominations founded and led by Sri Lankans aimed at establishing the church as an indigenous expression of Christian faith, and not merely a Western influence.

Still, the Sri Lankan government protects Buddhism as the “foremost” religion in the country and says the right to propagate religion isn’t protected by the constitution.

Lakruwan Wanniarachchi/AFP/Getty Images

Investigators look through debris outside Zion Church. (Lakruwan Wanniarachchi/AFP/Getty Images)

The National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka reported at least 67 incidents of violence and discrimination against evangelical churches last year. Those incidents included vandalism of an Assemblies of God church and a demand from a mob of 100 villagers that another congregation stop its Christian worship services. The organization said harassment is particularly sharp against Buddhists or others who convert to Christianity.

But the horror of Easter Sunday’s carnage was unusual, even among Sri Lankan Christians accustomed to threats. It also drew attention to the connection between local Islamists and global terror networks.

Two days after the attack, the Sri Lankan defense minister said the attacks may have been a reprisal against the January shootings in New Zealand that left 50 Muslims dead. Whatever the case, the sophisticated attacks underscored an ongoing ability and determination of the Islamic State and other terror groups to strike in unexpected places.

In Sri Lankan churches, Christians were grappling with how to handle the unexpected death and destruction striking their congregations and communities. On Easter Sunday, Prashan De Visser, a Sri Lankan Christian visiting Mariners Church in Southern California, spoke in a Facebook video about the need for prayer and for hope: “The church is shaken, but not broken. … The same spirit that raised Christ from the dead lives in us today.”

This story has been updated to reflect a revised death toll figure as of May 2.

Jamie Dean

Jamie Dean

Jamie is WORLD’s national editor based in Charlotte, N.C. Follow Jamie on Twitter @deanworldmag.