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Why The Easter Sunday Attacks Targeting Christians In Sri Lanka Were So Shocking

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Sri Lanka is a majority Buddhist country. The next largest religious groups are Hindu and Muslim. The Easter Sunday attacks targeted Christians, who make up roughly 7 percent of Sri Lanka's population. Mathew Schmalz has lived in Sri Lanka and studied the Christian communities there. He now teaches religious studies at the College of the Holy Cross. Welcome to the program.

MATHEW SCHMALZ: Thank you for inviting me.

SHAPIRO: I understand you visited some of the specific churches that were attacked. Describe those communities.

SCHMALZ: Well, the church St. Sebastian's is in Negombo, which is also called Little Rome popularly. And it's a very traditional, very culturally rich Catholic community on the southwestern coast of Sri Lanka near Colombo.

SHAPIRO: I know that large numbers of Catholics arrived in Sri Lanka centuries ago because of colonialism. How integrated are Christians into the country?

SCHMALZ: Very integrated. And many people would say that at least in the initial decades after independence, Christians, particularly Catholics, were a privileged group. So there is no real contradiction seen between being Sri Lankan and being Catholic.

SHAPIRO: When you speak to the Christians who you know in Sri Lanka, do they see this as an attack on the religion per se beyond just a horrific terrorist attack?

SCHMALZ: Oh, yes, they certainly do. I mean, it was obviously targeted at Easter, during the most sacred day for Catholics and evangelical Christians, who constitute the majority of the Christian population. So certainly they see it as something directed against them specifically as Christians within Sri Lanka.

SHAPIRO: And how are they responding, reacting to that?

SCHMALZ: Well, I think there is a feeling of shock, number one. And number two, there's a great deal of fear that this will spiral Sri Lanka down into interreligious violence that will be much more intense than what we've seen in the recent years.

SHAPIRO: Is Christianity something that Sri Lankans sort of wear in a visible fashion? I mean, would people know whether their co-workers or their neighbors are Christian? Or is this something that people sort of carry under the surface that you might not be aware of?

SCHMALZ: Well, I think people are very free, usually, in talking about their religious identity. And Catholics would wear particular items like scapulars or miraculous medals that would indicate their affiliation. When it comes to worship, however, women do veil. And if you go into churches like St. Sebastian's or St. Anthony's, there will be signs admonishing people to veil - women to veil. So there is a sense of distinctiveness, but it's not the sense that Catholics are identifiable by particular clothing or forms of speech.

SHAPIRO: Having spent time among Sri Lankan Christians, were you surprised to see this group targeted in such a vicious way?

SCHMALZ: I certainly was because Christians are fairly well-integrated in Sri Lankan society. It's a respected religious group. And apart from militant Buddhist extremists, they have not been targeted either by the government or by other elements in society. So it was shocking to me, absolutely shocking.

SHAPIRO: Mathew Schmalz is an associate professor of religious studies at the College of the Holy Cross. Thanks very much.

SCHMALZ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.