Pakistani Christians Under Threat As Taliban Targets Churches
Despite wave of attacks, some believe that co-existence is possible
At least nine Christians, including three women, were killed and 57 others injured in a suicide attack earlier this month at the Bethel Memorial Methodist Church in Quetta, Pakistan. Officials believe the attack was carried out on a Sunday, when the church was known to offer pre-Christmas programs, in order to maximize the number of casualties.
Two suicide bombers stormed the holy site, the first blowing himself up just outside the primary sanctuary where some 400 worshipers had gathered. Security forces were able to gun down the other attacker as he entered the premises.
“The loss of life could have been much higher if the bombers had gained entry into the hall where services were going on,” asserted Moazzam Jah Ansari, the head of the provincial police force. He added that security personnel had been put on high alert in and around the church, along with many others, given prevailing inter-religious tensions.
The Pakistani Taliban has for years actively targeted religious minorities. As far back as 2002, three Christian nurses were killed in a grenade attack on a chapel located in the Christian Hospital Taxila; in September of that year, seven Christian charity workers were killed in an attack in Karachi; and then, on Christmas day, three girls were killed when a Presbyterian church was targeted.
More recently, a September 2013 suicide attack on the historical All Saints Church in Peshawar killed 75 people, while in March 2015 twin blasts rocked the Roman Catholic Church and Christ Church during Sunday services in Lahore, killing more than a dozen worshipers.
In August 2015, Punjab Home Minister Col. (ret.) Shuja Khan Zada announced that five members of the Tehreek-e-Taliban organization were arrested in connection with the dual attack. Zada was himself subsequently killed in a suicide bombing.
According to prominent Pakistani political commentator Mirza Tajjummal Jarral, a candidate for the provincial assembly with the Jamaat-e-Islami party, the Taliban and its supporters carry out terror attacks in public spaces to create maximum fear and chaos while instilling uncertainty and hate in people. He highlighted to The Media Line as an example the 2015 Lahore bombings, which prompted clashes between Christians and Muslims that resulted in two deaths.
While Islamabad has been accused of harboring terrorists, primarily in the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan, Jarral challenged this assertion, arguing instead that Pakistan has contributed to the American war on terror, launched in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. He noted the Pakistani government’s logistical support for the effort and willingness to allow Washington to conduct operations within Pakistani territory, in which local forces also have partaken.
Jarral claimed that other countries, including India, have attempted to destabilize and isolate Pakistan by directing attacks on religious sites. Nevertheless, he conceded that the targeting of minorities and their institutions, including gurdwaras (Sikh houses of worship) and Hindu temples, remains a serious issue that the government has not sufficiently addressed.
In fact, Jarral contended that only 15 hours of debate have been conducted in the Pakistani parliament on minority issues overall. Moreover, he added, only 10 of the 273 members of Pakistan’s National Assembly are non-Muslim.
To remedy the situation, Jarral stressed the need for the U.S. to immediately initiate peace talks between Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Taliban.
Despite the spate of attacks, Reverend Khurrum Shehzad, spiritual leader of the Presbyterian Church of Pakistan, located in the city of Gujar Khan, believes that minorities are for the most part safe in Pakistan and that Christians enjoy freedom of religion which is guaranteed under Pakistani law.
Speaking exclusively to The Media Line following this month’s attack in Quetta, Shehzad highlighted the many contributions Christians have made to Pakistani society in fields ranging from law to medicine to business. In fact, Pakistan’s first non-Muslim Supreme Court justice, A. R. Cornelius, was Christian. Pakistani Christians have also distinguished themselves as superior fighter pilots in the Air Force, most notably Group Captain Cecil Chaudhry. One of Pakistan’s legendary cricketers Yousuf Youhana, was born Christian but later converted to Islam.
These achievements, according to Shehzad, are even more impressive given the number of Christians in Pakistan is estimated at 2.5 million, or roughly 1.5% of the total population.
When asked specifically about the targeting of Christians, Shehzad explained that extremist groups often attack mosques as well and that the majority of Pakistanis killed by terrorists have been Muslim. He said that western nations must understand the realities on the ground in Pakistan and that despite the threat posed by terrorists, Islamabad has played a pivotal role in rooting them out.
After the Quetta bombing, Shehzad arranged a special service to pray for the victims, stressing that the best way to combat against terrorism is by staying true to one’s values, which, in turn, offers an alternative life-course to violence.