The bombings on Easter Sunday of eight sites in Sri Lanka, including three churches, seemed designed not only to inflict mass casualties but also to send a message.
Initial investigations showed the chain of bombings was carried out by “a radical Islam group,” perhaps as retaliation for mass shootings in March at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, Sri Lanka’s state defense minister, Ruwan Wijewardana, said Tuesday.
ISIS has reportedly taken credit for the slaughter in Sri Lanka but did not immediately offer proof of its involvement.
To some, the bombings, carried out on the holiest day in the Christian calendar, has fed a narrative of religious war. Christians and Muslims, this theory goes, are increasingly at odds and willing to strike at each other’s spiritual hearts – sanctuaries.
To be utterly clear: Any attack on any house of worship is heinous and should be unequivocally condemned. In too many parts of the world, Christians are attacked by Muslims and vice versa.
But taking the long view, the data on terrorist attacks does not support a narrative of incipient religious war or sanctuaries facing increasing threats.
From 1970 to 2017, attacks at houses of worship comprised just 1.45% of all terrorist attacks worldwide, according to the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) at the University of Maryland.
When you also include terrorist attacks on religious figures (think: clergy and other leaders) and religious institutions, that number rises just 1 percentage point, to 2.44%.
In more recent years, between 2012 and June 2018, the statistic has spiked at times: In 2017, for example, terrorists in Egypt killed 311 people at a Sufi mosque. The high death toll meant that terrorism targeting religious groups and houses of worship resulted in 19% of total terrorism casualties that November.
But since 2012, the number of attacks on houses of worship, religious figures and religious institutions has remained relatively low, comprising anywhere from 2% to 4% of the total number of attacks worldwide.
Overall, according to START, terrorist attacks on private citizens and property (houses, apartments, etc.) comprised about 24% of the overall total, followed by assaults on the military (15.4%), the police (13.5%), governments (11.7%), businesses (11.4%) and transportation (3.75%).
Still, global patterns are not the same as regional patterns, said Erin Miller, who manages START’s Global Terrorism database. She cautioned that particular countries may witness increases in attacks on houses of worship, even while they remain rare worldwide.
Miller also noted that some attacks on houses of worship were committed by violent Islamists who targeted fellow Muslims, which (again) counters the notion that Christianity and Islam are increasingly in conflict.
So, while religious believers and many others are understandably appalled by attacks on houses of worship, we should be skeptical of analysts pushing a “clash of civilizations” narrative. The data does not support that idea, at least not at this time.