“It is shocking that people who gathered to celebrate Easter together were consciously targeted in this malicious attack,” read a statement from German Chancellor Angela Merkel in response to the bombing of three Christian churches and three high-end hotels in Sri Lanka that killed at least 321 people and injured hundreds more.
Yet the shocking thing about the carnage is that it is not shocking — and instead forms part of an ugly, predictable global pattern.
On major Christian feast days, somewhere in the world, some number of Christians are likely to be killed for no reason other than that they chose to attend religious services. Because Christmas and Easter are the holiest days on the Christian calendar, churches tend to be especially full, presenting ripe targets for anti-Christian hatred.
In 2012, a car bomb exploded near a church in Kaduna, Nigeria, while Easter was being celebrated, killing 41 people in an attack suspected of being the work of the Islamist extremist group Boko Haram. In 2016, 75 people died and more than 300 were injured when bombs exploded in a park in Lahore, Pakistan, as Christians were celebrating after Easter services. The following year, Coptic Christians in Egypt were forced to scale back Easter celebrations after bombings at two churches on Palm Sunday the week before, which opens the Easter observances, killed more than 40 people.
A similar pattern applies to Christmas. In 2011, for example, Boko Haram claimed responsibility for bombings across Nigeria on the holiday, including an attack on St. Theresa Catholic Church in Madalla, on the outskirts of Nigeria’s capital city, Abuja, that left 37 people dead and 57 injured.
Christians today are the most persecuted religious community on the planet, in part because there are simply more of them than any other religious group. Thirty-one percent of the planet’s population is Christian, according to Pew Research Center, compared with Islam’s 24 percent.
Of the world’s 2.2 billion Christians, roughly two-thirds live outside the developed West. The majority are poor, and many live in rough neighborhoods where religious freedom is more honored in the breach than the observance. Often, those Christians also belong to ethnic, linguistic and cultural minorities, meaning they’re doubly or triply at risk.
Estimates of how many Christians are killed yearly around the world because of their faith vary widely, from thousands to the tens of thousands, but it is certain that at any hour of the day, a Christian somewhere is being martyred. Much of this violence, though, occurs in places the Western media typically overlook.
Christians are hardly the only endangered religious believers, as indicated by the recent shootings in mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, which left 50 people dead. (Sri Lanka’s state minister for defense says the government’s investigation indicates that the Easter bombings, for which the Islamic State claimed responsibility, were launched in retaliation for the Christchurch attack.)
It is important to note that the threat to Christians doesn’t come exclusively from Islamist radicalism. Extremist currents of all stripes, both state and nonstate actors, frequently target Christians and their churches for a bewildering cluster of motives — including a mistaken identification of Christianity with the West and Western foreign policy.
A responsible approach to this human rights scourge by public authorities would feature systematic education in religious tolerance, including debunking stereotypes about Christianity being “foreign” — in the Middle East, for instance, the roots of Christianity reach back centuries before Islam. It would also involve aggressive security measures at Christian sites on major feast days, given the possibility of violence.
Until such a mobilization occurs, Christians will continue to be forced to celebrate Christmas and Easter in the grim and certain knowledge that some of their fellow celebrants around the world will not live to see the next day.
John L. Allen Jr. is the editor of the Catholic-news website Crux and the author of “The Global War on Christians.” This column was originally published by The Washington Post.