Religious minorities across Asia suffer amid surge in sectarian politics

Crime scene officials inspect the site of a bomb blast inside a church in Negombo, Sri Lanka, on April 21, 2019.
Crime scene officials inspect the site of a bomb blast inside a church in Negombo, Sri Lanka, on April 21, 2019. PHOTO: REUTERS

JAKARTA (NYTIMES) - The deadly attacks in Sri Lanka on Sunday (April 21) highlighted how easily religious coexistence can be ripped apart in a region where secularism is weakening amid the growing appeal of politics based on ethnic and sectarian identity.

In India, the country's governing right-wing Hindu party is exploiting faith for votes, pushing an us-versus-them philosophy that has left Muslims fearing they will be lynched if they walk alone.

In Myanmar, the country's Buddhist generals have orchestrated a terrifying campaign of ethnic cleansing against the country's Rohingya Muslims.

And in Indonesia and Bangladesh, traditionally moderate Muslim politicians are adopting harder-line stances to appeal to more conservative electorates.

The bombings of three churches in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday highlighted the vulnerability of Christians in Asia, where religious minorities of many faiths have been battered by this surge of nationalism and sectarian politics.

The explosions in Sri Lanka, which killed more than 200, "brought mourning and sorrow" on the most important of Christian holidays, Pope Francis said after celebrating Mass in St Peter's Square at the Vatican.

Christians make up only around 6 per cent of the population of Sri Lanka, which is still emerging from the shadow of a harrowing civil war between the Sinhalese Buddhist majority and ethnic Tamils, most of whom are Hindu or Christian.

 

It is not yet clear who carried out the bombings on Sunday, which also included attacks on three high-end hotels in Colombo, the Sri Lankan capital. But Christians were a primary target, and their faith has been increasingly under attack by militants and politicians across South and South-east Asia.

Over the past year, deadly bombings of churches by militants claiming allegiance to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) have rocked the Philippines and Indonesia.

In India, the Hindu right led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi has targeted Muslim and Christian minorities, the latter group because of its symbolic association with British colonialism.

The ruling party in Bangladesh, the secular-leaning Awami League, has partnered conservative Muslim clerics who routinely call for the persecution of religious minorities, including Christians.

In Myanmar, Christian minorities fear they will be the next targets of the Buddhist-dominated government.

And in Sri Lanka, a toxic Buddhist nationalist political force has agitated against minority Christians and Muslims, dismissing them as relics of a British colonial era when the Buddhist majority itself was repressed.

"We see how these radical Christian groups from the West come here and try to convert Buddhists," Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thero, a hard-line Buddhist monk in Sri Lanka, said in an interview before he was jailed for contempt of court last year. "We cannot allow this to happen anymore."

A week ago, on Palm Sunday - the beginning of the Christian Holy Week that culminates in Easter - a mob from Sri Lanka's Sinhalese Buddhist majority gathered at a Methodist building in the city of Anuradhapura, bombarding the building with stones and firecrackers and trapping worshippers inside.

Last year, Sinhalese throngs, spurred on by incendiary rhetoric from extremist Buddhist monks, carried out deadly attacks on Muslims near the city of Kandy, the latest in a series of anti-Muslim riots in Sri Lanka.

"Muslims and Christians, especially evangelical Christians, have been facing persecution for many years in Sri Lanka, but the scale and nature of today's attacks are not comparable," said Mr Ruki Fernando, a Roman Catholic human rights activist in Colombo.

In India, Christians constitute just 2 per cent of the population. But since Mr Modi's Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party came to power in 2014, space for India's nearly 30 million Christians has narrowed.

As part of a broader crackdown on thousands of foreign-funded organisations, a major Christian charity, Compassion International, was shut down in 2017 amid accusations it was masterminding religious conversions.

Later that year, Christmas carollers linked to the Roman Catholic Church were assaulted by Hindus in Madhya Pradesh state. Eight priests who went to the police station to help were instead detained by the authorities. Outside the station, their car was set on fire.

In one northern Indian city, a far-right Hindu group sent letters to schools warning administrators of repercussions if they marked Christmas in classrooms.

Evangelical Christianity has found fertile ground across Asia, where the rapid rate of conversions has created tensions from India to Indonesia.

 
 

Thousands of Pakistani converts have fled to Thailand, where they fear they could be deported at any time. Three years ago on Easter, a suicide bomber targeted Christian faithful in a park in Lahore, Pakistan, killing more than 70 people.

In Malaysia, where members of the country's Muslim majority are governed by syariah law in certain legal matters, Muslims are rarely allowed to renounce their faith.

Even in Muslim-majority Indonesia, which held peaceful elections last Wednesday, faith-based politics have tilted the political landscape as the persecution of religious minorities mounts with little pushback from moderate politicians.

Hundreds of churches have been forced to close in Indonesia, where about 10 per cent of the population is Christian. Proselytising is banned in the country, even though freedom of religion is protected in the country's Constitution.

The Christian former governor of Jakarta, the Indonesian capital, was released this year after serving a 20-month sentence for blasphemy, a conviction that human rights groups saw as evidence of the rise of hardline Islamic politics in a country that has long treasured its multifaith heritage.

President Joko Widodo, a Muslim moderate, failed to defend the former Jakarta governor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, who was his one-time protege. Surviving a political smear campaign that implied he was an impious Muslim, Mr Joko appears to have won a second term in this month's elections.