By Ajit Kumar Singh*
On early reports, at least 72 people have been 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, on March 27, 2016. Lahore’s District Coordination Officer Muhammad Usman stated, “The bomber managed to enter the park and blew himself up near the kids’ playing area where kids were on the swings”. Significantly, a large number of people, mostly Christians were present in the park, celebrating Easter [Christendom’s holiest day].
The Jama’at-ul-Ahrar (JuA), a breakaway faction of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) claimed responsibility for the suicide attack. JuA ‘spokesperson’ 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.” The operation was codenamed Saut-ul-Raad [Voice of Thunder]. JuA had declared its ‘support’ for Daesh (Islamic State, previously Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham, ISIS) in March 2015.
The bomber involved in the March 27, 2016, attack has been identified as Yousuf, son of Ghulam Farid, a resident of Muzzafargarh District in Punjab. According to preliminary investigations, the bomber had been teaching at a seminary for eight years in Lahore after completing his religious education in Dera Ghazi Khan District. SAIR has noted on numerous occasions in the past that most of the seminaries across Pakistan are breeding grounds for terrorism and Islamist extremism.
Even on the presently known fatalities, the Easter Sunday attack is the second worst ever targeting Christians inside Pakistan. In the deadliest attack on Christian minorities in Pakistan, 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. According to varying media reports, some 600 to 700 people were inside the church at the time of the attack.
There have been at least another four such attacks, resulting in 19 deaths, in the intervening period. The last terrorist attack targeting Christians was on 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.
According to partial data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), at least 21 terrorist attacks targeting Christians, resulting in at least 200 fatalities, have taken place across Pakistan since 2001. Some of the major incidents (each resulting in three or more fatalities) among these included:
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.
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 District, the Provincial capital of Sindh Province. 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 Province.
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. Amongst those killed were Barbara Green, wife of an American diplomat and her daughter; two Pakistanis and an Afghan. The injured belonged to different countries including USA, Britain, Australia, Canada, Switzerland, Afghanistan, Iran, Ethiopia, Iraq and Sri Lanka.
October 28, 2001: 17 Christians – including five children – and a Policeman, were killed and nine persons were injured, when six gunmen opened fire on a church in the Model Town area of Bahawalpur District in Punjab Province.
The 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. Christians have, moreover, been systematically targeted by Pakistan’s perverse blasphemy laws, which prescribe a mandatory death sentence for any purported act bringing against Islam and its Prophet to disrepute. On May 24, 2015, Police arrested one Humayun Faisal Masih, a mentally ill person, who was burning newspapers in Sanda, a Christian locality, in Lahore. Muslim onlookers accused him of blasphemy, alleging that some of the pages contained verses of the holy Quran. A number of people gathered outside the Ravi Road Police Station and demanded that the accused be handed over to them. Simultaneously, a mob rampaged through the Christian neighbourhood. An unnamed local Christian stated, “some angry Muslims, some armed with guns, ransacked churches and attacked Christian residences and houses pelting stones… (there was) a horrific and gruesome scene of violence against the innocent women, children, and elderly.” According to reports, local Christians were warned of impending violence by Police, and many had fled the area before the attack began.
Underlining the complicity of the state in such incidents, the Supreme Court had observed, on March 13, 2013, that the Punjab Police had failed to protect the lives and properties of the inhabitants of Joseph Colony in Lahore. Notably, on March 9, 2013, hundreds of protesters turned arsonists and attacked some 160 houses and 80 shops belonging to Christians in Joseph Colony, a predominantly Christian locality in the Badami Bagh area of Lahore, just a day after allegations of blasphemy were levelled against a man in the region.
Christians have been the principal targets for alleged acts of blasphemy. Significantly, then Federal Minister for Minorities’ Affairs, Shahbaz Bhatti, a Christian, was killed on March 2, 2011, by terrorists of Fidayeen-e-Muhammad, a TTP faction, and al Qaeda Punjab Chapter, for his opposition to the country’s blasphemy laws. The Christians are also attacked for opposing often forcible conversions to Islam. Asia Bibi, 46, 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’.
Terrorists and Islamist extremists have issued threats against the Christian community on several occasions. On May 18, 2011, for instance, in the wake of Osama bin Laden’s killing, the TTP vowed to fight with “new zeal” against “Our enemies… NATO, Jews and Christians.” In another such threat, in June 2008, an extremist group, Jesh Ahle-i-Alqiblat al-Jihadi al-Sari al-Alami [Army for the Direction of the Movement of Global Jihad], distributed pamphlets demanding that Christian Pakistanis convert to Islam or face death. The group declared, “every Muslim had a duty to take such action against Christians”. It also called on Muslims to attack and kill Christian foreigners.
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. According to the Annual Report, 2015, of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), between July 2013 and June 2014, 122 incidents of sectarian violence occurred in Pakistan, resulting in more than 1,200 casualties, including 430 fatalities. The report, thus observed, “Pakistan represents one of the worst situations in the world for religious freedom for countries not currently designated by the U.S. government as ‘countries of particular concern’… Pakistan continued to experience chronic sectarian violence targeting Shi’a Muslims, Christians, Ahmadi Muslims, and Hindus.”
Similarly, the Jinnah Institute of Pakistan in a report titled State of Religious Freedom in Pakistan 2015, stated that, during the period 2012-2015, at least 543 incidents of violence were carried out 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).
In another development that reiterates the fact that religious extremists have enormous support, national capital Islamabad was turned into a fortress as supporters of Mumtaz Qadri put the city under siege. Qadri was the bodyguard and killer of Salman Taseer, then Governor of Punjab and an advocate of the amendment of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. In a message on Twitter on March 27, 2016, Director General Inter-Services Public Relations Asim Bajwa disclosed that the Army had been requisitioned by the Government to control situation and secure the ‘Red Zone’, the area which includes the Parliament House, Pakistan Secretariat, Supreme Court, Prime Minister’s House, President’s House, and Diplomatic Enclaves in Islamabad. Qadri was hanged on February 29, 2016. The hanging was followed by protests in most major towns of the country.
The seeds of religious extremism sown over the decades have brought Pakistan to the verge of virtual anarchy. State-backed extremism has made life impossible for minorities and, indeed, for Muslim sects deemed ‘deviant’ by the Sunni majority. Indeed, sectarian violence between Sunni factions is also a growing reality as takfiri ideologies (which arrogate to themselves the right to declare others ‘apostate’) take firm root across the country. State agencies continue to harness Islamist extremism and terrorism to extend their strategic agenda into the country’s neighbourhood – particularly in Afghanistan and India – creating wide spaces for armed extremism that have produced a bloody blowback in Pakistan as well. There is little evidence, however, of any radical review of this ‘strategy’ at present.
* Ajit Kumar Singh
Research Fellow, Institute for Conflict Management