72 persons died in the Easter day carnage in Lahore, and 350 were injured.
On Easter day, celebrated across the world on March 27, a suicide bomber blew himself up in a park, in the densely populated town of Allama Iqbal, Lahore. Occurring near the children’s play area, most of the deceased were children and women. This attack is likely to be the deadliest assault on Pakistan’s Christian minority since the bombing of Peshawar’s All Saints Church in 2013.
The Taliban faction Jamaat-ul-Ahrar claimed responsibility for the suicide attack, saying its target was the Christian minority; and the Government has failed to take any steps so far against this group.
A statement issued by Ehsanullah Ehsan, spokesman for Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, says, “We want to send this message to PM Sharif that we have entered Lahore. We can do what we want but we cannot stop. Our suicide bombers will continue these attacks.”
Earlier in the day, a religious mob of 2,000 stormed Islamabad, and clashed with police outside the Parliament house and other sensitive areas. The mob later began a sit-in for an indefinite period until their demands are accepted by the government, including the execution of a Christian lady, Ms. Asia Masih, who was sentenced for committing blasphemy. The religious group was agitating against the execution of Mumtaz Qadri, who killed the former governor of Punjab province for supporting Ms. Asia against the blasphemy charges.
How long will the state allow these barbarians to slay innocent children studying in schools or playing in parks? These incidents and the challenge posed by the attackers to the state underpin the failure of the National Action Plan, which was designed to combat the growing terrorism jointly by all the political parties with military leadership. Not only have the terrorist attacks shown no signs of ceasing, but the attacks are increasingly aimed at soft targets such as parks and schools.
The government has totally failed to stop such actions, and has not initiated any judicial inquiry into incidents where children and women are made targets. In the incident at the Peshawar Army Public School where more than 150 students and staff were massacred by the Taliban in the tight security of the military, the military establishment itself did not allow any inquiries.
Governance in Pakistan has totally collapsed, with both military and civilian governments failing to provide security and protection to the citizens for many decades. After the carnage of the Army Public School, the military establishment asked civilians to provide absolute powers to law enforcement agencies, including the power to shoot at sight (extrajudicial killings), keeping suspects in custody for 90 days, and the formation of military courts. Even after having such powers, religious militants and terrorists are free to conduct suicide attacks. The attackers at Islamabad travelled 10 kilometers where there are police and military checkpoints, but no one stopped them.
According to German broadcasting, DW, the two events are inextricably linked, say observers. The nuclear-armed Pakistani state is increasingly falling into the hands of Islamist extremists. Efforts by the Pakistani government and military to eradicate home-grown terrorism have so far failed, despite claims that an ongoing military operation has defeated the Taliban and other militant groups.
Over the years, their terror tactics have morphed into hit and run, and their targets have shifted from the Military’s General Head Quarters (GHQ) and military instalments to vulnerable soft spots such as schools, parks and places of worship. As a result, innocent women and children are increasingly being attacked. Law enforcement agencies have so far been groping in the dark, unable to perceive the real threat that lies within their own ranks. It is no secret that many amongst the military’s top echelon still have a soft spot for the Taliban. Though General Shareef has proclaimed an all out war on militancy, political parties have thus far borne the brunt of the operation, instead of the madrassahs churning out suicide bombers.
Lahore’s Joseph Colony suffered a mob attack in March 2013. Elsewhere in the province of Punjab, a village mob burned alive a Christian man and his pregnant wife in November 2014.
In 2009, eight Christians were killed by mob violence in Gojra. Open Doors’s 2016 World Watch List ranks Pakistan number 6 among countries where it is hardest to be a Christian.
PML-N has always had trouble ensuring the rule of law in the country. The Sharif brothers’ lack of political will to protect the country’s minorities has caused growing frustration. Perhaps 1.6% of the country’s total population is too small a figure for the Sharif brothers to bother with, as they are busy appeasing their main constituencies, the orthodox clergy and right wing political parties.
Tahira Gill is a 55-year-old woman who was a nurse in the General Hospital, before she got injured in the Gulshane Iqbal Park bombing on March 27. Her husband passed away some years ago, and her only son, Zeeshan Gill (23), is being trained as a male nurse. He was not allowed a holiday on Easter to be with his mother. She called her friend Ester Saleem (50) and her family to go on an outing with her after the church service. They were at the park when a suicide bomb explosion killed more than 72 people and injured hundreds of others.
Most Pakistani Christians live in Punjab, and their highest concentration is in Lahore.
“We were eleven people in all. We had arrived at the park only 10 minutes before the blast,” said Ester, who is being treated for a fractured arm at the General Hospital. “It was so crowded that we decided to go back. But a deluge of people was pouring in, and going back became almost impossible.”
With a broken leg, I dragged myself to a rickshaw, carrying my younger brother. It was the deadliest terrorist attack in the history of Punjab, and the deadliest in Pakistan since the 2014 massacre of 134 schoolchildren at a military-run school in Peshawar.
“The explosion was so powerful that it threw my brother Sharoon and I, and some of our friends, at least five feet away from where we were standing,” said Irfan Patras, who is being treated in the General Hospital for a fractured leg. Seventeen-year-old Irfan is a student of Ghauri Wisdom High School, in the mostly-Christian Youhannabad locality of Lahore. “Within no time, police vans and ambulances arrived at the scene and began taking the injured to Jinnah Hospital. But no one was paying attention to Sharoon, who was badly hurt. I attended to him for a while, and then dragged myself to a rickshaw, carrying him with a broken leg. I put Sharoon inside the vehicle, and also saw an old injured woman who had been burnt, and a child. We rushed to Jinnah Hospital.”
Irfan and his friends had been up all night on the eve of Easter, and went to the Sunrise Service at 4am. Then, they slept until the afternoon. “My friends Irfan, Adnan and Wasif called me in the evening to join them on a trip to Fortress Stadium. When Sharoon heard that, he insisted on going with us.” They set out to go to Fortress Stadium, but their rickshaw driver told them he didn’t know where it was, and asked if he could take them to Gulshan-e-Iqbal Park instead. They agreed.
Sharoon succumbed to his injuries and died that evening. He was buried the next day.
A splinter group of the Taliban, which calls itself Jamaatul Ahrar, claimed responsibility for the attack. They said they had targeted Christians celebrating Easter. But only 23 of those who died were Christians. The rest of them were Muslims.
“Christians took part in the Pakistan movement, and are giving our blood to save Pakistan,” said Napoleon Qayyum, a Christian leader of the Pakistan People’s Party. “Unlike the Youhannabad incident in March last year, we see that this incident has brought the two communities closer.”
The first major attack on Christians in the recent wave of terrorism happened right after the 9/11 attacks. On Sunday, October 28, 2001, four gunmen entered St Dominic’s Catholic Church in Bahawalpur and fired indiscriminately, killing 15 worshippers and a police guard. Then, on March 17, 2002, five people were killed when terrorists targeted the Islamabad International Protestant Church. Six Christians died in an attack on the Christian Missionary School in Murree on August 5, 2002. Four days later, four Christian worshippers were killed in an attack on Taxila Mission Hospital Chapel on a Sunday.
On September 25 the same year, seven Christians aid workers of Idara Amno Insaaf (Institute for Peace and Justice), a Christian charity in Karachi, were massacred in their office. Before the year ended, three women were killed and 15 people were injured in an attack on the United Presbyterian Church near Sialkot on December 25. They were celebrating Christmas.
Communal attacks on the Christian community continued throughout the decade. Major incidents where Christian communities were targeted by their Muslim neighbors over accusations of blasphemy include Sangla Hill in 2005, Gojra in 2009, Islamabad in 2012 (following the Rimsha Masih case), and Lahore’s Joseph Colony in 2013 (when protestors attacked and burned Christians’ houses). A Christian couple was burned alive by an angry mob in November 2014 and a similar effort in Sheikhupura in July 2015 was thwarted.
Police have been able to avert such communal violence since then.
A year ago, on March 15, 2015, suicide bombers attacked two churches in Youhannabad, killing at least 14 worshippers. The death toll would have been much higher if church volunteers on security duty had not acted quickly. In 2013, a suicide bomber blew himself up outside the All Saints’ Memorial Church in Peshawar, where at least 78 worshippers were killed.
Punjab parliamentarian Mary Gill says the terrorists targeted the park because security around churches had been heightened. “This was probably the first time a park was targeted,” she said.
For Anglican Bishop of Multan Leo Roderick Paul, it is a matter of concern that guarding the churches can no longer keep the Christian community safe. “Our people are not safe anywhere,” he says.
Mary Gill believes this is a sign that terrorism ultimately threatens people of all faiths. This realization, she hopes, will bring various communities closer together.
“Bombs cannot see religion,” says Sidra Alam. “They hit everyone.”
Like all Pakistanis, she has seen the various faces of terrorism. She has seen terrorists attacking places of worship, markets, bus stops, shrines, and security installations. They have targeted minority faiths as well as various sects of the Muslims majority. They have targeted police, security agencies, soldiers, men, women and children. They have exploited security weaknesses as well as social and economic fault lines.
The 2011 Pew Research Centre report titled Rising Restrictions on Religion characterizes Pakistan as the third least tolerant country to religious diversity. Another of their reports, Common Concerns About Islamic Extremism: Muslim-Western Tensions Persist, says that only 16 percent of Muslims in Pakistan hold a positive opinion of Christians.
Asif Aqeel is a Journalist, human rights activist, research on the issues of religious minorities and can be reached at; firstname.lastname@example.org