First shock, then flock.
That may be the best way to describe the response of dozens of people standing outside St. Anthony’s Church in Sri Lanka’s capital on Easter Sunday after a terrorist bombing struck Christians worshipping inside. According to press reports, local residents of all faiths and ethnicities rushed to help the victims staggering out of the Catholic church.
“Tamil, Sinhalese, Muslim, Buddhist, Christian and Hindu citizens of that crowded, oldest, part of the city were the ‘first responders’ even before the emergency services arrived,” stated the Daily News media outlet. “The sheer spontaneity of the people’s immediate collective response symbolized Lanka’s social unity and sheer grit in the face of extreme violence and tragedy.”
This story, along with similar ones about Sri Lankans coming together after the country’s worst terror attack, is worth retelling because it serves an important purpose. Narratives of shared purpose could quell instincts toward retaliation against the minority Muslims, who make up about 10% of the population.
One goal of jihadist bombers is to provoke vicious cycles of revenge in a society and eliminate any coexistence between faiths. Social division can then drive Muslims into extremist violence and toward a final apocalyptic battle. This helps explain why Islamic State (ISIS) took responsibility for the April 21 attacks that killed more than 250 people.
“Intercommunal conflict and schism is precisely what ISIS hopes to provoke,” wrote Alan Keenan, project director in Sri Lanka for the International Crisis Group, about the attack.
“In addition to the Christian community that was the direct target of the bombings,” he adds, “what was attacked was Sri Lanka’s strained but still living tradition of inter-religious and inter-ethnic cooperation and friendship.”
Tales of Sri Lankans uniting after the bombing are starting to create a virtuous cycle that can counter the vicious one. Both Muslims and Buddhist monks have aided Christian mourners. Representatives of Islamic nations have met with Catholic clergy. Religious leaders of all faiths have appealed for calm.
“In a situation of this nature, we should not point our finger at any individual or group holding them responsible for the recent acts of violence. As a united nation, we have to rise from the ashes of destruction,” says one Catholic bishop, Raymond Wickramasinghe.
Last Sunday, after emergency workers arrived at St. Anthony’s Church, the residents who had helped the victims continued to stand together. They held hands and prayed. Like the Easter that had been celebrated in the church, they rose above the scene of death with a different story. They were living out Sri Lanka’s centuries-old tradition of religious harmony. And perhaps such acts can crowd out any cycle of revenge.