By Tushar Ranjan Mohanty
April 23, 2018
At least two members of the Christian community, Rashid Khalid and Azhar Iqbal, were killed and another five were injured in a firing incident near a church in the Essa Nagri area of Quetta, the provincial capital of Balochistan, on April 15, 2018. Quetta’s Deputy Inspector General (DIG) of Police, Abdur Razzaq Cheema, stated that the incident occurred when worshippers were leaving after attending the Sunday service at the church. Islamic State (IS, also Daesh) claimed responsibility for the attack through the Amaq ‘news agency’, its propaganda wing.
On April 2, 2018, four members of a Christian family were shot dead by unidentified assailants on Shah Zaman road in Quetta. A minor girl was also injured in the attack. The family was travelling in a rickshaw, when armed assailants on a motorcycle intercepted them and opened fire. Belonging to Punjab, the family was visiting relatives in Quetta on the occasion of Easter on April 1, and was likely being tailed by the assailants after they had identified them as Christians. Moazzam Jah Ansari, Inspector General of the Balochistan Police, observed that it appeared to have been a ‘targeted attack’. Daesh claimed responsibility for the attack.
On December 17, 2017, at least 11 civilians were killed and 56 injured in a suicide attack by two Daesh terrorists on the Bethel Memorial Methodist Church in Quetta. Police Guards stationed at the church entrance and on its roof killed one terrorist, but the second detonated his explosives-filled vest outside the prayer hall, causing all the casualties. DIG Abdur Razaq Cheema disclosed further that another two terrorists managed to escape. At the time of the incident there were nearly 400 worshippers in the church for a pre-Christmas service.
Terrorist attacks on Christians are not a new phenomenon in the theocratic state of Pakistan. Indeed, according to partial data compiled by the Institute for Conflict Management (ICM), Pakistan has witnessed at least 27 such incidents resulting in 252 fatalities and 609 injuries since March 2000 (data till April 22, 2018). The Christian community has faced the brunt of some of the worst terrorist attacks in the country in recent years. Some of the major terrorism-related incidents targeting the Christian community across Pakistan included:
March 27, 2016: At least 74 people were 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, when Christians were celebrating Easter. Ehsanullah Ehsan, ‘spokesperson’ of the Jama’at-ul-Ahrar (JuA), a breakaway faction of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), had 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.”
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.
September 22, 2013: 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), on September 22, 2013. Ahmed Marwat, ‘a spokesman’ for the Jundullah group, a faction of the TTP, had 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."
The entry of Daesh into this ‘campaign of targeting Christians’ has created a more insecure environment for this minority. The Voice of America, quoting Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) parliamentarian Tariq Christopher Qaiser, who belongs to Christian community, expressing serious concerns about the increasing number of targeted attacks, both on different Muslim sects and on Christians, stating, on April 7, 2018,
It’s not only alarming but also shameful. It is the responsibility of the state to protect all its nationals without any discrimination as to from which sect or religion they belong to. I have been raising my voice on the floor of the Parliament and will continue to do so.
Mehdi Hassan, chairman of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), noted, on April 7, 2018,
Attacks on the Christian community by Daesh is really a matter of concern, and this will worsen [the] religious extremism situation in Pakistan. In a country where extremism exists in so many forms, any outfit (including Daesh) can triumph.
At the launch of its annual report on April 16, 2018, HRCP noted,
Violent persecution of Christians is a common occurrence in Pakistan. Christians are targets for murder, bombings, abduction of women, rape, forced conversions, and eviction from home and country. Fake cases under blasphemy laws are regularly used to terrorize Christians.
Indeed, after the Quetta Essa Nagri attack, on April 15, 2018, DIG Abdul Razzaq Cheema said to SAMAA TV over phone on April 16, 2018 that,
Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) and its offshoot LeJ al-Alami with the support of Daesh’s network operating in Afghanistan are carrying out the attacks in Balochistan. LeJ and other sectarian groups have thrown their weight behind Daesh and they are working for them”.
More recently, on March 30, 2018, National Counter-Terrorism Authority (NACTA) Chief Ihsan Ghani, observed that Daesh posed a real threat to Pakistan, and that its significant presence in Afghanistan threatened a spill over into Pakistan.
Significantly, on September 29, 2017, Pakistan’s Foreign Office had denied the organised presence of Daesh in the country, claiming that the country remained immune to this terrorist formation. Earlier, on July 1, 2017, the Director General of the Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR) Major General Asif Ghafoor had declared that there was no Daesh presence in Pakistan.
Other religious minorities have regularly faced atrocities across Pakistan. The Jinnah Institute of Pakistan, in a report titled ‘State of Religious Freedom in Pakistan 2015’, had noted that, between 2012 and 2015, at least 543 incidents of violence were recorded 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).
According to partial data compiled by SATP, at least 144 Shias have been killed in 30 incidents of violence since 2016 (data till April 22, 2018). During this period, at least 92 Christians were killed in five incidents of targeted killing. Nine Ahamadiyas were killed in as many incidents while one Hindu doctor was killed in this period.
Religious minorities have also been systematically targeted by Pakistan’s perverse blasphemy laws, which prescribe a mandatory death sentence for any act purportedly bringing Islam and its Prophet to disrepute. Most recently, a Christian man, Nadeem James Masih, was sentenced to death on September 15, 2017, for blasphemy. Nadeem was arrested in July 2016, after his friend Yasir Bashir told the Police that he sent him a poem on WhatsApp that was insulting to Islam. Following the incident, Masih fled from his home in Sara-e-Alamgir town in Punjab to escape an angry mob that had gathered there, but later surrendered to the Police. His trial continued for more than a year at the Gujrat Jail in Punjab. Besides the death sentence, Masih was fined PKR 300,000. While there have been no executions for blasphemy in Pakistan, there are currently about 40 people on death row or serving life sentences for the ‘crime’, according to a release dated April 26, 2017, by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF).
Underlining the weakness in the existing blasphemy law, the Islamabad High Court had asked Parliament on August 11, 2017, to make changes to the current Act to prevent people from being falsely accused of the crime. In a 116-page order, Justice Shaukat Aziz Siddiqui suggested that Parliament amend the law to require the same punishment of the death penalty for those who falsely allege blasphemy, as for those who commit the crime. "Currently, there is a very minor punishment for falsely accusing someone of blasphemy," the judgment noted.
Significantly, then Federal Minister for Minorities’ Affairs, Shahbaz Bhatti, a Christian, was killed on March 2, 2011, by terrorists of the Fidayeen-e-Muhammad, a TTP faction, and al Qaeda Punjab Chapter, for his opposition to the country’s blasphemy laws. Christians have also been attacked for opposing often forcible conversions to Islam. Asia Bibi (46), a Christian woman from the Sheikhupura District of Punjab, 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 Governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer, came forward in her support and asserted that the blasphemy law had been abused in her case. Taseer was later killed by his bodyguard, Mumtaz Qadri on January 4, 2011, for his support to Asia Bibi and a campaign for amendment to the blasphemy law.
The United States (US) State Department on January 4, 2018, placed Pakistan on its Special Watch List for ‘severe violations of religious freedom’.
The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) at the launch of its annual report on April 16, 2018, noted,
Little wonder that the numbers of religious minorities are shrinking. At the time of Independence, Pakistan’s religious minority constituted over 20 per cent of the population. The 1998 census reported that the numbers had declined to a little over three per cent.
The continuing attack on minorities, including Christians, is a clear manifestation of the dismal state of affair in Pakistan’s extremist theocracy, where religious minorities live in constant fear. The Pakistani establishment, meanwhile, remains collusive or quiescent.
Tushar Ranjan Mohanty is a Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management
Source: South Asia Intelligence Review