Analysts: Targeting religious minorities considered propaganda and tactical to divide Pakistani society
But the attacks alone are not oppressing Christians in Pakistan
Gunmen carrying AK-47 assault rifles stand guard on a tiny, dusty street, but they’re not protecting a military installation or a prison. They’re armed volunteers guarding a church.
This is the area of Youhanabad on the outskirts of the city of Lahore. It’s the most densely-populated Christian neighborhood in the whole of Pakistan.
Last year, two bombers struck local Catholic and Protestant churches killing more than a dozen people, injuring many more. Protests by the Christian community only led to more violence rather than security.
Death has come to Youhanabad once again.
Pastor Shakeel Anjum, who leads the Children’s Chapel Church, just buried six members of his congregation in one day. They were killed in the bombing of an amusement park in Lahore on Easter Sunday.
A ruthless Taliban splinter group that vows to attack soft targets claimed responsibility for the attack and said that it was targeting Christians. But families from various faith communities were there and more Muslims were killed than Christians.
This year, Anjum says he’s too scared to call his congregation to protest. He was even concerned about more attacks if crowds gathered for a mass funeral. “Our people are very poor, they barely have enough to eat every day – they can’t afford the time to protest these attacks.”
In recent years, Pakistani Christian communities have been regularly targeted with violence.
More than 100 homes were set on fire by outraged Muslims in Badami Bagh, Lahore, in March 2013 after a Christian man was accused of speaking against the Muslim prophet Mohammad.
In September of the same year, 81 people were killed and more than 100 injured in twin explosions outside a church in Peshawar.
In a show of solidarity, people of all faiths, led by the group “Pakistan for All,” formed a human chain to protect churches on the following Sunday.
Anjum says it’s imperative that people of other faiths in Muslim-majority Pakistan show solidarity and support.
“We really need the support of the Muslims of Pakistan and the government. As Christian citizens, we love and pray for Pakistan.”
Analysts say the Taliban groups target religious minorities for a variety of strategic reasons: as propaganda, to divide Pakistani society, to distract Pakistanis from military operations against extremists, and to erode confidence in the government – potentially creating a vacuum for extremists to fill.
But in addition to the attacks that grab headlines, many Christians in Pakistan say mundane aspects of daily life leave them feeling isolated and neglected.
Near the graveyard where the Easter attack victims were buried, the daily deprivation that Youhanabad residents experience is evident.
There is a debate between residents here and the government about whether this is an illegal settlement. “Where else can we go?” argue the impoverished Christian community – the majority live on the edge of society, deprived of an education, struggling to find jobs and unable to afford living elsewhere.
There are many areas like this across Pakistan, not necessarily Christian-majority areas, but where impoverished Muslims live too. But nationwide it’s the widespread discrimination against religious minorities, and in this case Christians, that frequently impacts peoples’ lives.
Christian monitoring group World Watch Monitor points to the overwhelming number of Christians employed as sanitary workers in major cities – as much as 80% in the city of Peshawar. This is not a coincidence.
One recent advert for sanitary workers clearly says it’s looking for non-Muslims to clean toilets. The ad was later retracted.
After the Easter Sunday attack, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif addressed the nation. “Today, I have come to you to renew my vow that we are accounting for each and every drop of blood of our martyrs. This score is being settled.”
It’s apparently being settled by the military and police in raids and clampdowns on terrorist hideouts in the tribal areas, Karachi and, since the recent attack, cities across the Punjab in Multan, Faisalabad and Lahore.
But Cecil S. Chaudhry, minority rights worker and executive director of the Pakistan Catholic-affiliated National Commission for Justice and Peace, says the military crackdown is irrelevant if mindsets do not change.
“What about the beast within us? What about the beast that is within our houses and our society? If we do not address those problems, this military operation will be a waste.”
Roots of radicalization
He believes successive governments have made space for extremists and says the roots of radicalization in Pakistan are in its biased laws.
“When you exclude the role of religious minorities from your textbooks, then how will a society really know about the existence of these diverse cultures and diverse religions in the country?”
His father, who was a decorated war veteran and a pilot who fought in two wars, was once celebrated in Pakistan’s history books. Chaudhry would proudly show his friends when he was a schoolboy.
But it’s a different story now. “With the passage of time, my father has… been removed from the textbooks,” he says. He was referring to allegations of revisionism – often involving the removal of direct references to religious minorities – in school texts in Pakistan. All textbooks are reviewed by each provincial education board. Last year, some textbooks started to include a separate chapter on religious minorities.
Pakistan’s strict blasphemy laws have often been manipulated to persecute minorities, including Christians.
In 2014, a Christian couple accused of desecrating the Quran was beaten by a mob, then pushed into a burning brick kiln.
And in 2011, in a highly publicized case, Asia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian mother of five, was sentenced to death for blasphemy.
Salman Taseer, the Muslim governor of Punjab, was one of the few people to speak out in support of Bibi, and call for the death sentence to be revoked. He was gunned down by his own guard in 2011.
In a bizarre and shocking twist, his guard was hailed as a hero. Even after being hanged for murder earlier this year, his funeral prayers were attended by thousands.
On Easter Sunday, while the people of Lahore buried their dead and tended to their children’s burns, his supporters kept the capital of Islamabad on lockdown.
More than ten thousand protestors camped in front of Pakistan’s parliament demanding the execution of Asia Bibi and no changes in the blasphemy laws.
Today the protestors have dispersed. The government has accepted their requests, but newspaper headlines have moved on to other topics.
In a special Sunday service remembering the dead, children hold up placards condemning terrorism and a song is sung for peace.
But there is still a palpable sense of unease and the same question lingers: is the state prepared to tackle this threat to Pakistan’s diversity and long-term security?