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The Scarlet & Black

Religious students on recent attacks in places of worship

By Nora Paul
paulnora@grinnell.edu

At Grinnell Christian Fellowship’s weekly prayer, each Wednesday begins with hopes and sentiments that students bring with them to share. The last few weeks have included prayers for the strength of those suffering in Sri Lanka, the families of victims in New Zealand, the people of Paris and the quick recovery of the injured in Louisiana.

Attacks on places of worship, while not uncommon, have shaken the international community in recent weeks. On Friday, March 12, New Zealand experienced their most fatal mass shooting to date. A rifle-wielding gunman opened fire at two Christchurch mosques, killing 49 people and injuring almost 40 during Friday prayers. The shooter had reportedly posted a manifesto on social media stating his intentions to target Muslim people. He then live-streamed the rampage. New Zealand passed legislation as a response of these attacks.

Similar shock swept Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday as the bombings of two churches constituted the country’s deadliest violence in a decade. Sri Lankan officials inculpated a local Muslim militant group, National Thowheed Jamaath, for the 290 people killed and 500 injured. Christians in Sri Lanka and throughout Europe felt the impact of the violence as it touched not only those attending the churches, but all those who shared the attendees’ faith.

Kirtimay Pendse ‘19 heard about the bombings that happened in Colombo, where his parents currently live. From phone conversations with his parents and friends, he gained glimpses into the tragic situation.

“People are scared … they are suddenly being thrown into a state of war,” said Pendse.

As religious spaces are a safe haven to many people, the notion of their unsafety conjures up histories of tension and persecution, and serves as a reminder of systems of oppression, that currently shape religious life for different groups around the world.

“Interreligious tensions have been building up for years … but now that they have culminated in a terror attack, this dialogue starts to happen,” Pendse said, regarding the bombings in Sri Lanka.

These events thrust religious identities into the public sphere, and bring to light how tightly religious practice is tied to history, politics, geography and demographics, instead of just being contained in the physical spaces in which people worship.

Yanni Tsandilas ‘20, who practices Christianity in the Greek Orthodox tradition, described how political conditions in certain regions of the world deter the expression of his religion. Mentioning the bombings of two Orthodox churches in Egypt on Palm Sunday of 2017, he said, “I don’t need these attacks to draw my mind to the dangers that people of religious identity, in particular Orthodox Christians, [face when] practicing their faith.”

Responses to these events in have also been steeped in greater political and social forces, particularly in the case of Sri Lanka, which is currently seeing explosions of violence that are forcing many Muslims to flee the country.

“Unfortunately a lot of the rhetoric that I see, in particular around Christchurch and Sri Lanka, is really aimed at portraying Islam as a fundamentally hateful religion,” said Tsandilas. “And instead of aiming to be productive in rebuilding these communities and helping them move forward it’s … stigmatizing a group in an unjust way.”

Islam has also been targeted in Sri Lankan policy efforts to ban the wearing of burqas. Pendse drew a parallel to Western Europe in recent years, in which such a law was put into effect, “directly and indirectly criminalizing that entire religion.”

The bombings in Sri Lanka compounded with fallout from the Notre Dame fire to raise worldwide claims from Christians that their religion is under siege. However, Pendse rebuked such generalizations, saying, “Lives of people have been lost, you know, it’s not just Muslims have killed Christians — people have died. That should be your first response.”

Both Pendse and Tsandilas noted the importance of acknowledging the unique humanity of victims outside their religious background, and the intersectionality of the practitioners of a certain faith around the world.

Although these attacks all targeted places of worship and many of them were outbreaks of underlying religious tensions, Pendse urged people not to vindicate religion as the sole perpetrator. “I think it’s important to keep in mind that the attacks that are being carried out in the name of religion is not representative of what the actual religion stands for.”

He said, “[These attacks] have not actually lessened what religion stands for for me personally — if anything, I think it’s become more important to talk about it.”

Tsandilas described the use of prayer and religious solidarity to heal, and to allow one to “be sympathetic towards the similar circumstances that people of other religious traditions find themselves in.”

Going forward, Pendse highlighted the importance of “keeping this alive in our public memory because this is not something that will just blow over; it’s going to have long-lasting ramifications in the country and globally as well.”

The destruction of these physical homes of worship recalls to many their purpose, prompting calls to create spaces for discussion and congregation that extend beyond religious walls.

“‘This is terrible’…is not where discussion should stop,” Pendse said.

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