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Pakistan: Carnage of Christians and Minorities

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By Ajit Kumar Singh
Research Fellow, Institute for Conflict Management

In the deadliest attack ever 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. Capital City Police Officer (CCPO) Mohammad Ali Babakhel disclosed that one of the suicide bombers opened fire at Police guards at the church gate, killing one of them. He subsequently lobbed a grenade and, prevented by the Police from entering the church, detonated his suicide vest. Thirty seconds later, the second attacker who had managed to enter the church, detonated his suicide jacket as well. According to varying media reports, some 600 to 700 people were inside the church at the time of the attack.

Ahmed Marwat, ‘a spokesman’ for the Jandullah group, a faction of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (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." Jandullah had also claimed responsibility for the killing of 10 foreign mountaineers and their Pakistani Guide at the Nanga Parbat base camp in the Bonar area of Diamer District of Gilgit Baltistan in the intervening night of June 22-23, 2013. The victims included an American with dual Chinese citizenship, three Ukrainians, two Slovakians, two others from China, a Lithuanian and a climber from Nepal. One Chinese climber reportedly survived by fleeing the scene.

The worst ever terror attack on Christians prior to the September 22 incident had taken place on October 28, 2001, when 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.

According to partial data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal, at least 15 terrorist attacks targeting Christians, resulting in 30 fatalities, had taken place across Pakistan since 2001, prior to the September 22, 2013, incident. Some of the major attacks among these included:   

March 10, 2010: Six persons, including two women, were killed and seven persons were injured when over a dozen militants 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 Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province.

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 Province.

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 held responsible 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 others 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.

Apart from these terrorist atrocities, Islamist extremists have also intermittently attacked Christians in mass and targeted violence. The Christians constitute a meagre 1.6 percent of Pakistan’s population of 193 million. According to media reports, Islamist extremists have attacked Christians on at least 82 occasions since September 11, 2001, resulting in 147 fatalities and 355 persons injured. In the latest of series of such attacks, on March 9, 2013, hundreds of protesters turned into arsonists and attacked some 160 houses and 80 shops belonging to Christians in Joseph Colony, a predominantly Christian colony, of the Badami Bagh area of Lahore, the provincial capital of Punjab Province, just a day after allegations of blasphemy were levelled against a man in the region. Underlining out the complicity of the state in these incidents, the Supreme Court 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.

The Christians are mainly targeted 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’.

The terrorists/extremists have issued threats against the Christian community on several occasions in the past. 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 said “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 a detailed Fact Sheet issued by United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) in July 2013, 203 incidents of sectarian violence targeting religious minorities had been recorded in Pakistan in the preceding 18 months, resulting in 1,800 casualties, including 717 deaths, of which 635 were Shias. The report stated, further, that 22 Ahmadis were killed in these attacks; followed by 11 Christians; two Hindus; one Sikh; and 16 others.

The September 22 attack has raised serious questions about the impact of the purported ‘peace initiatives’ by the Nawaz Sharif Government, which are largely premised on an effort to buy peace with the extremists. Conspicuously, Islamabad’s overtures to the Hakimullah Mehsud-led TTP have clearly brought no relief. The religious intolerance and cult of violence in the name of jihad has been embedded deep into the political culture and national psyche, producing armies of radicalized Islamists, and a wider context of the justification and acceptance of their murderous actions. The problem is infinitely compounded by state complicity and the failure of enforcement agencies and the justice system to act effectively against openly armed and violent Islamist extremist factions, many of which have been raised and continue to enjoy the patronage of state agencies, including the all-powerful Army and its intelligence wing, the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI).

Nevertheless, there are at least some indications that the terrorist attacks against the minorities have created some division between Islamist extremist and terrorist formations. Significantly, according to a report published by the SITE Intelligence Group on September 16, 2013, al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri issued specific guidelines for jihad, including the directive that “they (militants) should also leave alone Christians, Hindus and Sikhs living in Muslim lands...” While al Qaeda remains an ‘inspiration’ to many Islamist terrorist formations in the region – and across the world – it is abundantly clear that not all of them feel constrained to accept the group’s diktats in matters of strategy and tactic.  Indeed, the Janduallh group has responded quite unambiguously to these exhortations through the carnage of September 22, 2013, demonstrating clearly that those who seek to provoke terrorism, and then circumscribe it within boundaries of their choosing – whether these puppeteers are al Qaeda or the ISI – are bound to fail. Savagery has its own escalating logic, a truth that is demonstrated almost every day in Pakistan.

[Source: SATP]

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