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Sri Lanka's Muslims facing pressure after bombings

Nimisha Jaiswal Negombo
April 30, 2019

The Muslim community in Sri Lanka is facing a backlash after the April 21 bombings. They are asking for tolerance amid a growing atmosphere of mistrust and animosity. Nimisha Jaiswal reports from Negombo.

A Muslim man in Sri Lanka
Image: Reuters/D. Liyanawatte

The coastal city of Negombo, north of Sri Lanka's capital, Colombo, looks deserted. White banners flutter over quiet streets and almost every shop is shuttered. Several of them have shattered windows, and shards of glass swept to a corner reflect the April sun.

Negombo's main church, St. Sebastian's, was one of eight locations in Sri Lanka ripped apart by a blast on Easter Sunday. Over half of the estimated death toll, which has been revised several times by Sri Lankan officials, came from the bombing at St. Sebastian's.

Read more: Sri Lankan Catholics mark 1 week since Easter Sunday attacks

Sheik Hasmatullah is one of Negombo's Muslims. His house is located in a Muslim neighborhood just few hundred meters away from the blast site.

When Sheik heard the blast, he assumed it was Easter fireworks. Then he heard vehicles rushing by, and thought it was an Easter rally. Then he heard the sirens.

 "We are completely aghast at what happened, and we feel immense guilt and shame when we face non-Muslims, as the attackers came from our community," said Sheik.

Unlike most of Buddhist-majority Sri Lanka, Negombo is largely Christian. About 65% of its population is Roman Catholic, and 14% is Muslim, according to the 2012 national census.

Read more: Sri Lanka bans face veils after Easter terror attacks

Muslims face suspicion and threats

In Negombo on the evening of the attack, there were reports of Muslims being told to close their shops or face repercussions. Worried about his young children, Sheik thought it was safer to move to his mother's house in Colombo for a few days.

After five nights away, Sheik came home. But he still worries — his two young daughters attend a Catholic school, and he is not sure whether they will continue to be accepted.

"I offer my deepest condolences to all those who lost loved ones, and I understand their feelings," said Sheik. "But I am begging them to please tolerate us, bear us, and not to think that we are terrorists," he said, holding back tears.

Read more: Messages of peace, hope and unity: religious leaders react to Sri Lanka attacks

A Muslim cleric, who asked not to be named, is facing a similar dilemma — his cousin married into a Christian family and lost five relatives in the attacks. But he was unable to offer condolences.

"Given how I dress, I would not be welcome," he said. "I feel anguish that I cannot console my own family during this distressing time, but I don't want them to misunderstand my presence as disrespect."

All along Sheik's street, Muslim shops have faced sporadic attacks. White flags of mourning hang above the shops. On street corners, the Negombo Muslim council has posted large condolence banners condemning the attacks. A few of them hang on Mosque Street.

Farther down the street, army personnel stand guard outside an Ahmadiyya mosque. The Ahmadiyya are a minority Muslim community originating in the Indian subcontinent. Many Pakistani refugees from the Ahmadiyya community live in Sri Lanka and are fleeing persecution in their home country.

Refugees kicked out of homes

The week after the attack, over 200 Ahmadiyya men camped out at their mosque in Negombo. They had been forced out of their homes, and were threatened and attacked for being Pakistani.

After the "Islamic State" (IS) militant group claimed responsibility for the attack, many foreigners from Islamic countries have been viewed with suspicion in Sri Lanka.

Read more: Islamic State leader al-Baghdadi appears in new video

"Sri Lanka has been incredibly kind to us," said Adnan, a young refugee, adding that the Ahmadiyya people have faced persecution at home and would never support extremist violence.

With shops and restaurants closed, refugee rights activists are scrambling to arrange enough food for Adnan and the other young men with him. The women and children are being sheltered in another mosque. Efforts have been made to get assistance from church authorities, but according to the activists, they have been turned away.

"Already, refugees face difficulties in Sri Lanka," said Luke David, who works for ZOA, a refugee rights organization. "They are not allowed to work, their children are not eligible for free education. The bombings just make everything worse for them," he told DW.

David has been shuttling between the mosques and the Negombo police station, where 120 more refugees were camped out. This group includes men, women and young children from Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Read more: How did Islamist terrorism take hold in Sri Lanka? 

No place for minorities

Many of those from Pakistan are Christians themselves, fleeing persecution as a minority religion.

"I was so happy that we could finally practice our faith here in Sri Lanka," said Natasha, a mother of three. She still has henna on her hands and feet, which she had applied in anticipation of Easter.

 "When I heard of the blasts I was shattered. I immediately wiped my makeup off, removed my bangles, and wore black. Our brothers and sisters died in these heinous attacks."

Yet, as a Pakistani, she was kicked out by her landlord. Many other refugees said that their landlords were facing pressure from mobs that have descended on Pakistani neighborhoods, hectoring landlords for renting apartments to foreigners.

Many refugees are still unable to go home or find a stable shelter. According to human rights activist Ruki Fernando, several efforts to house them with the police or at schools have failed, as no one is willing to assure their safety.

At least four times, refugees were taken to venues in busses, but had to be brought back to the Neogmbo police.

"The physical and mental trauma caused by this to an already scared and distraught population is beyond description," said Fernando.

Read more: Easter Sunday blasts belie Sri Lanka's calm facade

Refugees targeted in Sri Lanka

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