Pakistani Islamist Militias Have Declared War on the Country's Christians

The church bombing in Peshawar was just the beginning of their campaign.

Sep 26 2013, 3:45pm

Hundreds of families have been torn apart after last Sunday's bombings in Peshawar.

Even in a city that's been hit by some of the worst terrorist attacks in Pakistan, few could have predicted what would transpire last weekend.

After Mass services ended at Peshawar’s historic All Saints Church, hundreds of worshippers milled around outside, joined by children who had just finished Sunday school. In quick succession, two suicide bombers entered the compound and detonated their explosives, ending the lives of scores of Pakistani Christians in the process.

The attack killed 85 people and injured over 100, making it one of the worst ever attacks on a minority faith group in Pakistan’s history – a history that is already well acquainted with religious persecution.

“The initial report was that 120 people had been killed,” recalls Peshawar-based journalist Iftikhar Firdous, who described the hellish scenes at the bomb site. “Usually it's 15 or 20 [dead]. Sometimes it's exaggerated, but when it's 120…"

Speaking from Peshawar, Father John Williams – from the Pakistan-based Catholic organisation National Commission of Justice and Peace – told me, "There is one family that has lost a father, a son and a daughter. The mother is alive, but she cannot use her legs. There are so many families that have been torn apart. One family had left two of their youngest sons at home, the rest died in the blast. These are just a few examples. What will happen to these people afterwards? They will be paralysed and handicapped. That is more heinous."

Christians all over Pakistan demonstrated against the bombings.

A militant Sunni group, Jundullah – part of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) militant network – has reportedly claimed that it carried out the attack. Incidentally, the bombing came as the Pakistani government was drawing up a strategy to open peace negotiations with the TTP, after battling against them for the past decade. Unsurprisingly, Sunday’s bombing and an attack on senior military officers in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province earlier this month has put a halt to that plan, with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif saying that it would now be difficult to start a dialogue with the militants.

The leading supporter of the peace talks, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf political party and its leader Imran Khan, have been criticised extensively in the wake of the bombings. Khan was jeered at by protesters and families of victims at the hospital in Peshawar on Sunday, while Pakistan’s influential television channels skewered the party – which runs the province’s government – for not having a single official at the bomb site or at the hospital immediately after the attack.

As politicians and the government deliberate next steps with the TTP, Pakistan’s Christians are in a state of shock at the way their place of worship was singled out and attacked.

Peshawar's historic All Saints Church, where the two suicide bombers detonated their explosives.

According to a 1998 census, Christians make up less than two percent of Pakistan’s population. With just a smattering of elected representatives, they have nothing to do with policy matters, politicking or militancy. But the TTP has now reportedly marked them for death, announcing that, "They are the enemies of Islam, therefore we target them. We will continue our attacks on non-Muslims on Pakistani land."

This marks a deadlier turn in the persecution of Pakistan’s Christians. The TTP is just another enemy – albeit a far more potent and powerful one – on a long list of those that have targeted Christians in the past, not least in the form of Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy laws. The colonial-era legislation criminalises all acts of blasphemy, but it is largely only used against members of minority faiths and the Ahmadiyyas, a Muslim sect that Pakistan has legally excommunicated from Islam.

Scores of Christians have been accused, tried and jailed under false charges of blasphemy. In 2010, a Christian woman named Aasia was sentenced to death for allegedly committing blasphemy. Those who rose to her defence – a Christian government minister and the Muslim governor of the Punjab province – were assassinated in 2011. Rimsha Masih, a Christian teenager, was accused of blasphemy by a cleric last year. After the charges were proven to be false, the girl and her family sought asylum in Canada. Blasphemy charges are often levelled to settle personal scores and for economic gain; if Christians leave their neighbourhoods fearing mob violence, their houses and shops are up for grabs.

Wreaths were laid next to signs declaring those killed in the bombings as martyrs, and calls for action to be taken against incompetent police officers.

But some cases don’t even reach the courts. Over the past five years, Christian neighbourhoods have collectively faced the wrath of vigilante mobs, spurred by hard-line Muslim clerics and sectarian groups charging through neighbourhoods to "avenge" acts of alleged blasphemy. For years, the violence has followed a startlingly familiar pattern: Houses are looted, set on fire and Christians are burnt alive because of a rumour that someone, somewhere may have committed blasphemy.

In 2009, the Christian colonies in the town of Gojra and the nearby village of Korian were targeted after a rumour spread that someone in Korian had desecrated the Quran. Eight Christians were killed, a church was destroyed and dozens of houses were burned down.

In March, an argument between a Christian and a Muslim boy in Lahore’s Joseph Colony resulted in the latter accusing the Christian of blasphemy. Just like in Gojra four years ago, a mob ravaged the area and set over 100 houses on fire. In both cases, eyewitnesses said the police stood by and let the mob run wild. 

Inside the All Saints Church.

The increase in such attacks, the assassination of the Christian minister and the fear that Christians could be targeted by mobs anywhere while the government stands by has made Christians fearful, wary of their every word and action. The priest at Gojra’s Catholic Church, Father Yaqub Yusuf, told me that Christians are scared after Sunday’s attack in Peshawar. "We have become a target," he said. "There is no leader who can raise a voice for us."

Peshawar’s Father Williams said it was evident now that there was a threat against churches. "We can’t predict what will happen in the future," he told me. "Even the majority – the Muslims – aren’t safe here."

Christians in Peshawar.

The attack may have horrified many across Pakistan, but while the repercussions will reverberate in Christian neighbourhoods, it's likely the rest of the population will forget about it in a day or two. In Gojra, where charred houses stand as a reminder of the violence in 2009, at least a dozen Christians protesting the Peshawar bombings were detained by the police. Father Yusuf told me that, "Someone maliciously alleged that the protesters were holding signs with Quranic verses on them. This is not what happened at all, but these kinds of allegations scare people who are already cautious about what they do and say."

The government has promised to act against those responsible for bombing the church. But even if it does bring justice against militants – or negotiates a peace deal with them – there still remains the environment of fear borne out of the blasphemy law and the widespread discrimination in the country. And the state of Pakistan – for now, at least – has no promises to end that.

Follow Saba on Twitter: @Saba_Imtiaz

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