By Tushar Ranjan Mohanty*
Eleven civilians were killed and 56 injured in a suicide attack by two Islamic States (IS, also Daesh) terrorists on the Bethel Memorial Methodist Church in Quetta, the provincial capital of Balochistan, on December 17, 2017. Police Guards stationed at the church entrance and on its roof killed one terrorist but the second detonated his explosives-filled vest outside the prayer hall, Provincial Home Minister Sarfraz Bugti confirmed, causing all the casualties. Police Official Abdur Razaq Cheema disclosed further that two other terrorists managed to escape. At the time of the incident there were nearly 400 worshippers in the church for the pre-Christmas service. The IS claimed the attack.
One seven-year-old boy was killed when an unidentified terrorist hurled a hand grenade at a Christian colony in the Chaman area of Qilla Abdullah District, Balochistan, on December 1, 2017. “It was a hand grenade which caused the explosion at the colony’s gate,” Gul Mohammad, a local Police officer disclosed, adding, “The blast also smashed windows in nearby homes.”
On October 7, 2017, terrorists hurled a hand grenade at a church at Shah Zaman Road in Quetta, but no casualties were reported.
According to partial data compiled by the Institute for Conflict Management (ICM), these were the three terrorism-related attacks on Christian community in which 12 persons were killed and 56 others sustained injures during the current year (data till December 25, 2017). During the corresponding period of 2016, there were two such incidents which had resulted in 76 fatalities and 305 persons injured. No such incident was reported during the remaining period of 2016.
Terrorist attacks on Christians are not a new phenomenon in the theocratic state of Pakistan. Indeed, Pakistan has witnessed at least 25 such incidents resulting in 246 fatalities and 603 persons injured since March 2000 (data till December 21, 2017). Some of the prominent terrorism-related incidents targeting the Christian community across Pakistan included:
March 27, 2016: At least 74 people were killed and more than 300 injured in a suicide blast inside the Gulshan-e-Iqbal Park in the Iqbal Town area of Lahore, the provincial capital of Punjab Province, when Christians were celebrating Easter. ‘Spokesperson’ of the Jama’at-ul-Ahrar (JuA), a breakaway faction of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), Ehsanullah Ehsan declared, “We had been waiting for this occasion. We claim responsibility for the attack on Christians as they were celebrating Easter. It was part of the annual martyrdom attacks we have started this year.”
March 15, 2015: At least 15 persons, including 13 Christians and two Policemen, were killed and more than 70 were injured, when two suicide bombers attacked two churches near the Youhanabad neighbourhood in Lahore, sparking mob violence in which two terrorists were killed. Youhanabad is home to more than 100,000 Christians. JuA had claimed responsibility for the attack as well.
September 22, 2013: At least 79 worshippers, including 34 women and seven children, were killed and another 130 were injured when two suicide bombers attacked a Christian congregation at the historic All Saints Church in the Kohati Gate area of Peshawar, the provincial capital of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) Province, on September 22, 2013. Ahmed Marwat, ‘a spokesman’ for the Jundullah group, a faction of the TTP, claimed responsibility for the attack, and declared, in a statement to the media, “Until and unless drone strikes are stopped, we will continue our attacks on non-Muslims on Pakistani land. They are the enemies of Islam, therefore we target them.”
March 10, 2010: Six persons, including two women, were killed and seven persons were injured when over a dozen terrorists armed with Kalashnikov rifles, pistols and hand-grenades attacked the office of World Vision International, a US-based Christian aid agency, in the Oghi village of Mansehra District in KP.
December 25, 2002: Three women were killed and 15 persons were injured in a grenade attack on the United Presbyterian Church near Sialkot in Punjab.
September 25, 2002: Seven persons were killed and another three were injured in a terrorist attack on a Christian welfare organisation’s office, Idara Amn-o-Insaaf (Institute for Peace and Justice), in Karachi, the provincial capital of Sindh. Lashkar-e-Islami Mohammadi (LIM), a little-known terrorist group, was blamed for the attack.
August 5, 2002: Six persons were killed and another four were injured in a terrorist attack on a Christian missionary school in the Jhika Gali Town of Murree tehsil (revenue unit) in Rawalpindi District of Punjab.
March 17, 2002: Five persons were killed and more than 40 were injured, including the High Commissioner of Sri Lanka to Pakistan, in a grenade attack during the Sunday morning service at the Protestant International Church located between the American and Russian Embassies in the heavily protected area of the Diplomatic Enclave in Islamabad.
October 28, 2001: 17 Christians – including five children – and one Policeman were killed and nine persons injured, when six gunmen opened fire on a church in the Model Town area of Bahawalpur District in Punjab.
Other than Christians, other religious minorities have regularly faced atrocities across Pakistan. The Jinnah Institute of Pakistan, in a report titled State of Religious Freedom in Pakistan 2015, had noted that, during the period 2012-2015, at least 543 incidents of violence were recorded against religious minorities in Pakistan. Shias were targeted on at least 288 occasions during this period, followed by Hindus (91 occasions), Christians (88 occasions), and Ahamadiyas (76 occasions).
Christians constitute a meagre 1.6 percent of Pakistan’s population of 193 million. While they have been victims of terrorist atrocities, they have also been intermittently attacked in mass and targeted violence by Islamist extremists. Right-wing vigilantes and mobs have taken the law into their own hands, killing at least 69 people over alleged blasphemy since 1990, according to an April 13, 2017, report. Most recently, a Christian teenager, Sharoon Masih (17), was beaten to death by his classmates for drinking from the same glass used by a Muslim student in the Vehari District of Punjab on August 30, 2017. Media reports indicated that the boy was killed just because of his faith. His mother Razia Bibi had warned Sharoon not to mix with the boys who practiced Islam after one of them had reportedly told him (Masih), “You’re a Christian don’t dare sit with us if you want to live.” Sharoon was just on his fourth day at his new school at the Government Model MC High School in Burewala.
Christians have been systematically targeted by Pakistan’s perverse blasphemy laws, which prescribe a mandatory death sentence for any act purportedly bringing Islam and its Prophet to disrepute. Most recently, a Christian man, Nadeem James Masih, was sentenced to death on September 15, 2017, for blasphemy. Nadeem was arrested in July 2016, after his friend Yasir Bashir told the Police that he sent him a poem on WhatsApp that was insulting to Islam. Following the incident, Masih fled from his home in Sara-e-Alamgir town in Punjab to escape an angry mob that had gathered there, but later surrendered to the Police. His trial continued for more than a year at the Gujrat Jail in Punjab. Besides the death sentence, Masih has been fined PKR 300,000. While not a single convict has ever been executed for blasphemy in Pakistan, there are currently about 40 people on death row or serving life sentences for the crime, according to a release dated April 26, 2017, by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF).
Underlining the weakness in the existing blasphemy law, the Islamabad High Court asked Parliament on August 11, 2017, to make changes to the current decree to prevent people from being falsely accused of the crime. In a 116-page order, Justice Shaukat Aziz Siddiqui suggested that Parliament amend the law to require the same punishment of the death penalty for those who falsely allege blasphemy, as for those who commit the crime. “Currently, there is a very minor punishment for falsely accusing someone of blasphemy,” the judgment noted.
Significantly, then Federal Minister for Minorities’ Affairs, Shahbaz Bhatti, a Christian, was killed on March 2, 2011, by terrorists of the Fidayeen-e-Muhammad, a TTP faction, and al Qaeda Punjab Chapter, for his opposition to the country’s blasphemy laws. Christians have also been attacked for opposing often forcible conversions to Islam. Asia Bibi (46), a Christian woman from the Sheikhupura District of Punjab, who has been sentenced to death and has been in prison for the last four years following a conviction for blasphemy, in her memoir Blasphemy, describes how she had been asked to convert to Islam to ‘redeem herself’. The Governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer, came forward in her support and asserted that the blasphemy law had been abused in her case. Taseer was later killed by his bodyguard, Mumtaz Qadri on January 4, 2011, for his support to Asia Bibi and a campaign for amendment to the blasphemy law.
As SAIR had noted earlier, seeds of religious intolerance have been systematically sown in Pakistan since its inception in 1947 – and, indeed, even earlier, during the struggle for independence. There was a further and escalating radicalization during and after the regime of military dictator General Zia-ul-Haq. Since then, Pakistan has witnessed rising attacks against all minorities, including the Christians. The 2017 Annual Report of USCIRF noted that “during the past year, the Pakistani Government continued to perpetrate and tolerate systematic, ongoing, and egregious religious freedom violations. Religiously discriminatory constitutional provisions and legislation, such as the country’s blasphemy and anti-Ahamadiyas laws, continue to result in prosecutions and imprisonments.”
Moreover, there were many instances that reiterated the fact that religious extremists have enormous support across Pakistan. In the most recent assertion of radicalized groups in the country, the Federal Government bowed down before violent Islamist protesters. On October 2, 2017, the National Assembly passed the ‘Election Bill 2017’, making changes in the Khatm-e-Nabuwat [finality of Prophet-hood] clause of the earlier Bill. Soon after, countrywide protests led by Tehreek-e-Labaik of Pakistan (TLP), an Islamist party, erupted against this change. Other pro-Muslim parties, such as Pakistan Sunni Tehreek and Tehreek-e-Khatme Nabuwwat (Movement for the Finality of Prophet-hood) also lent their support, demanding the resignation of Law Minister Zahid Hamid for removing the clause which, according to these groups undermined Islamic beliefs and amounted to blasphemy. Mounting pressure, the protestors began camping at Islamabad’s Faizabad Traffic Interchange from November 6, 2017. The Government restored the original clause on November 17, 2017, but the Islamists continued with their protest. Eventually, on November 25, 2017, bloody clashes took place just outside Islamabad, in which at least six people were killed and another 200 were injured. Speaking from the site of the clashes, TLP ‘spokesman’ Ejaz Ashrafi declared, “We are in our thousands. We will not leave. We will fight until end.” Clashes also took place elsewhere in the country and continued on November 26 as well. Order was restored only after the resignation of Law Minister Hamid on November 27, and with the Army mediating between the protest leaders and the Government.
Christians in particular and other religious minorities at large will continue to suffer as long as the establishment maintains its policy of appeasement of Islamist extremists and fundamentalists. Given the past record of the state policy, there seems to be no foreseeable end to this tragic chain of events.
*Tushar Ranjan Mohanty
Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management