YASMIN ALIBHAI-BROWN on how atrocities in Sri Lanka evoked revulsion

YASMIN ALIBHAI-BROWN on how atrocities in Sri Lanka evoked revulsion

April 22, 2019

Why good people of all faiths must beat the zealots: YASMIN ALIBHAI-BROWN on how the atrocities against Christians in Sri Lanka evoked revulsion across religious divides

My mother used to say that there are a thousand roads and they all go to the same place. 

She meant that, whatever our different faiths, however we worship, God doesn’t change.

This is one profound reason why the atrocities in Sri Lanka evoked such revulsion around the world, across all religions. 

It is not just the fact that many of the dead and injured were Christians, targeted on Easter Sunday, the most sacred day in their calendar.

At least 207 people have been killed and hundreds more injured after multiple explosions rocked three churches and three luxury hotels in and around Colombo as well as at Batticaloa in Sri Lanka during Easter Sunday mass

What causes universal outrage is that they were at worship. They were engaged in the most peaceful, meaningful human act, and they were subjected to extreme violence. 

As a Muslim, I find that abhorrent – just as countless Christians, Buddhists and people of all other faiths (including agnostics and atheists) were repulsed by last month’s killings at mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand.

I was especially upset when the news of the attacks broke because Easter is a special Sunday for me and my family. 

My daughter, Leila, was born on Easter Sunday 26 years ago, and I have always felt that her arrival was somehow even more meaningful because it happened on a religious festival.

That’s not to say we were a pious household. My mother Jena was a devout Shia Muslim, but my husband was and still is a vaguely not-quite-Christian, and I was certainly not always an observant follower of Islam. Yet all of us felt the significance of Easter that year.

Much later, because the son of friends was a chorister, we were invited to Westminster Abbey one Christmas to hear the carols. I will never forget my mother’s wonder at the church’s magnificent beauty. 

Crime scene officials inspect the site of a bomb blast inside the church in Negombo after the deadly explosion

A Christian woman lights a candle at a vigil for the for the victims of bomb explosions in churches and hotels in Sri Lanka, in Peshawar, Pakistan

She was a tiny woman, barely 5ft tall, and she gazed around before turning to my husband and admonishing him – wagging her finger and saying: ‘How can you not believe in such a beautiful religion?’

Anyone who is surprised by that story does not understand the profound connection between Christianity and Islam. 

The Prophet Mohammad decreed that Christians should be free to worship without interference. In a letter to the monks of St Catherine’s monastery in Sinai, he promised: ‘We shall not bear arms against you but shall protect you.’

The world, it seems, was a more civilised place centuries ago. Today Christians are oppressed and attacked as a minority in many countries where once they worshipped freely. 

In China, Pakistan, Sudan, Nigeria and elsewhere we hear of attacks on Christian communities.

Infamously, the young mother Asia Bibi who was imprisoned in Pakistan on charges of blasphemy, because she was Christian and not Muslim, is still in prison even though any case against her has been quashed. 

People light candles to condemn the attack which targeted those ‘engaged in the most peaceful, meaningful human act’ 

Her family live in fear for their lives. We have to speak out against religious intolerance and injustice, whoever the victims are. I believe in universal human rights. Unless good people of all faiths – and none – support each other, the cowards and the murderers are going to win.

There is a direct parallel too between the horror in Sri Lanka and the killing of a journalist in Northern Ireland last week. 

Lyra McKee was shot while reporting on a riot in Londonderry, a senseless murder that threatens the fragile peace that has existed for 21 years.

Sri Lanka has been at peace – just barely – since the Tamil Tigers’ terrorist campaign was stamped out in 2009. 

The country has been like a delicate piece of tapestry ever since, with skilled and willing hands seeking patiently to stitch it together. That anyone should deliberately rip apart all that love and work defies comprehension.

To intensify the damage done, the bombers targeted hotels, seeking to wreck the tourist industry and so sap the lifeblood of the island economy. 

People hold placards as they condemn the deadly bombings in Sri Lanka, during a protest in Karachi, Pakistan. Whatever our different faiths, however we worship, God doesn’t change, says Yasmin Alibhai-Brown

It was truly moving to hear a Sri Lankan bishop say that the killers were human beings, too – and that it was the duty of every Christian to pray for them.

That intense commitment to forgiveness is something I have always loved about Christianity. 

I have felt a sincere respect for the religion since childhood, and I am conscious that my own much-loved Islam does not have the same limitless capacity to forgive. 

We can all learn from each other’s faiths and even the lack of faith evinced by good atheists and agnostics.

Let me stress that I am not talking about the war-mongering Christianity of Tony Blair and George W Bush, or the blood-thirsty extremism of intolerant US evangelists. There have always been bad Christians, going right back to the Crusades and before.

And I am not one of those who feels the decline of faith in the West has automatically left us less civilised. I know plenty of fantastic people who don’t pray or believe in any higher power.

A relative of a Sri Lankan victim of an explosion at a church weeps outside a hospital

The Pope expressed deep condolences to the people of Sri Lanka as he led the Easter Mass in the Vatican today 

The real rift in society is not between believers and non-believers – it is between blinkered extremists of all hues, and the people they deem ‘different’ from them. 

The threat to civilisation comes from the zealots, whatever religion they claim to follow, who want to persecute and punish anyone who is not like them. 

The people who set off bombs are the same people wielding knives for the sake of it on the streets of Britain. They both seek a momentary sense of power.

Not long ago, my daughter took me and her father to Liverpool Cathedral. She and I sat together – I don’t think she believes in a God, but she often prays with me to make me happy. 

There we were, a largely lapsed Christian, his unconventionally Muslim wife and their pretty-much-atheist daughter, all in a place of worship together. Only an intolerant extremist could fail to see the beauty in that.

It was so heartening to see a long queue of worshippers form outside another Parisian church this weekend, after the services in Notre Dame were transferred there. 

Like them, I too am praying today. I offer my fervent hope that the billionaires who were so keen to contribute to the cathedral’s restoration last week will spare some of their riches to help the shattered congregations in Sri Lanka.

God knows they need our support now.

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