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From Christchurch to Sri Lanka, Terror Attacks on Places of Worship Show Alarming Rise

By Fazil Khan

Apr. 25, 2019

File photo of a destroyed church in Sri Lanka. Source: News18

New Delhi: On Sunday, April 21, eight coordinated suicide bombings shook the island nation of Sri Lanka. It was the largest terror attack in the history of South Asia. The explosions, as per estimates till Wednesday evening, claimed at least 359 lives and left more than 500 injured. Three of these bombings were targeted on churches where people had gathered for the Easter Mass.

The attack on churches in Sri Lanka also comes about a month after a gunman attacked two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, which resulted in at least 50 fatalities. These attacks indicate a general surge in terror attacks on places of worship or religious institutions in South Asia as well as across the world.

According to the University of Maryland’s Global Terrorism Database (GTD), an open-source database on terrorist events from 1970 onwards globally, the South-Asia region alone accounts for about 24 per cent of all the terror attacks on places of worship worldwide between 2000 and 2017, the latest year the data is available for.

In other words, of the total 1,909 terror attacks on religious institutions, 458 incidents have been recorded in the South Asian region, which comprises Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

However, these attacks have seen a significant increase since 2012. Among the 458 recorded incidents of terror in South Asia, at least 291 or roughly 64 per cent have occurred during 20122017, killing at least 1,013 people. Globally, too, the number of incidents jumped from double-digits till 2011, to triple-digits in 2012 and have remained high since. So, in effect, 1,244 of the total 1,909 terror attacks on religious institutions worldwide happened from 2012 to 2017, claiming 8,453 lives in total.

Overall, among the religious institutions, mosques and other Islamic places of worship were the most attacked places, with more than 1,000 of the total 2,716 incidents between 1970-2017, followed by churches, and other religious institutions.

Erin Miller, program manager at GTD, believes that this rise in attacks on places of worship is due to an improvement in data collection, and coincides with an overall increase in terror attacks. However, in an e-mail response to News18, Miller added, “While this improvement likely had some impact on the completeness of the data, I think the increase reflects the growth and expansion of the Islamic State of Iraq into a network of affiliated organizations present in certain regions of the world. It also reflects, to some extent, growing anti-Muslim sentiment.”

The Worst Affected

Among all the eight nations in the region, Pakistan is the worst affected with 217 incidents of attack on religious institutions since 2000 which resulted in 1,566 fatalities. Of these, 133 incidents happened after 2011.

Segregated in terms of severity, these incidents include at least 44 major attacks, each of which resulted either in at least 10 fatalities or injured more than 50 people or both. One of the largest terror attacks on religious institution in Pakistan occurred in Sehwan, Sindh on February 16, 2017 when a suicide bomber detonated at Lal Shahbaz Qalandar Sufi Shrine. In addition to the assailant, at least 90 people were killed and over 350 were injured in the blast. The Khorasan Chapter of the Islamic State and the Jamaat-ul-Ahrar faction of Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan separately claimed responsibility for the attack.

Another suicide bombing outside of All Saints Church in Peshawar, Pakistan on September 22, 2013 claimed at least 85 lives, while 131 others were injured in the explosion. Jundallah (Pakistan) claimed responsibility of the attack and its spokesperson, Ahmed Marwat, stated that the outfit attacked the church because “Christians are enemies of Islam and that nonMuslims in Pakistan would be targeted in the future as long as drone strikes persist [on its bases].”

Other recent major attacks in Pakistan include the suicide bombing at the Shah Noorani Shrine in Khuzdar, Balochistan on November 12, 2016, a suicide attack at a Shia mosque in Shikarpur, Sindh on January 30, 2015, an explosion targeted at a Shia mosque in Karachi on March 3, 2013, and an attack during Friday prayers in Darra Adam Khel on November 5, 2010. Together, these attacks killed at least 253 people and injured 324 others.

Afghanistan, the second-most affected country in the region, has witnessed 123 attacks on places of worship, resulting in 520 deaths in total. Again, nearly 88 attacks have come between 2012 and 2017 claiming 384 lives.

Two of the worst terror attacks on a religious institution in Afghanistan have both occurred in Kabul. First, and one of the recent incidents was recorded on October 20, 2017 when a suicide bomber detonated inside the Imam Zaman mosque in Kabul. At least 56 people were killed in the blast and 55 others were injured. The Khorasan Chapter of the Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack.

The second attack at the Abul Fazi shrine in Kabul on December 6, 2011 claimed 56 lives and injured 134 people. Lashkar-e-Jhangvi claimed responsibility for the attack.

In a stark contrast to both Pakistan and Afghanistan, Bhutan and Maldives have recorded no such incident.

How India Fares

After Pakistan and Afghanistan, India is the third-most affected country in the South-Asian region. Since the year 2000, India has witnessed at least 63 terror attacks on religious institutions, which claimed at least 98 lives. Though, the country has recorded 33 incidents of terror on houses of worship since 2012, unlike Pakistan and Afghanistan, these have resulted in only two deaths.

The largest attack on a religious institution in India came way back in 2006 when Noorani Masjid in Malegaon, Maharashtra was targeted with three bombs. At least 40 people were killed in the blasts and 100 others were injured.

In another major attack, two gunmen entered the Akshardham Temple complex on September 24, 2002 in Gandhinagar, Gujarat. It was only after 14 hours of exchanging gunfire that security forces were able to neutralize the assailants. At least 33 people were killed in the attack and 70 were injured.

Other targeted attacks on places of worship are May, 2005, Mecca Masjid blast, which claimed 13 lives, and an explosion at a temple in Varanasi in March, 2006, where 20 people died.

Not the First Such Attack in Sri Lanka

Sunday’s bombings in Sri Lanka, which has remained relatively peaceful since more than a three-decade-long civil war ended in 2009, was not a one-off incident in the island nation. The country has witnessed at least 14 terror attacks targeted on religious institutions since 2000, claiming 47 lives in total. Although 10 of these attacks occurred between 2012 and 2017 and no casualty was recorded in those incidents.

Sri Lanka’s largest terror attack was recorded on August 13, 2006 in Allaipiddy when unknown assailants attacked the Philip Church. At least 40 people were killed in the attack whereas 50 others were injured.

As the country witnessed its largest ever terror attack in history, the Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the massacre. However, investigators are yet to ascertain whether the terror outfit had a direct involvement in the attack or the suicide bombers were merely inspired by the IS ideology.