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  • Writer's pictureKnox Thames

From peace to carnage

September 24, 2013

The two suicide bombers struck just as worshippers were leaving the morning service at All Saints Church in Peshawar on Sunday, September 22, 2013.  Instantly, a scene of peace became one of carnage, with more than 80 people killed and 130 injured, though the death toll will likely climb as hospitals are unable to save the wounded. 

All Saints is one of the oldest churches in Pakistan, but before Sunday, many outside observers probably were unaware that any church, let alone one holding 600 congregants, existed just miles from the Afghan border near Pakistan's tribal region.  Built in 1883 during the British colonial period, its architecture resembles a mosque more than a European cathedral.  Now it shows pocket marks and other scars from the ball bearings used in the attack.  After years of successfully navigating the challenging political and religious terrain, the church is now the site of arguably the largest attack on the Christian community in Pakistan.

However, this was not the first act of violence against Christians in Pakistan.  And unless the government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif takes resolute action, it will not be the last.  For instance, the Pakistan Religious Violence Project of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) documented attacks between January 2012 and June 2013 against all religious communities in the country.  Based on publicly available information, the project recorded 37 attacks against Christians, resulting in 11 deaths and 36 injuries, as well as five women who were reportedly targeted for rape.  On Sunday, this body count jumped almost tenfold.

Earlier this year near Lahore, an entire Christian village named Joseph Colony was burned to the ground after an allegation of blasphemy.  Instead of trying to stop the attack, police ordered the residents to flee.  While the Punjabi government is rebuilding the destroyed homes and other buildings, no one has been held accountable.  The incident was eerily similar to the 2009 burning of the village of Gojra, where seven Christians were burned alive.  Past being prologue, all of the Gojra cases were dropped and no one was found guilty. Other high profile instances of violence include the 2011 murder of Federal Minister for Minority Affairs Shahbaz Bhatti, the only Christian in the previous government's cabinet.  He was killed by the Pakistani Taliban for his opposition to Pakistan's blasphemy law.  The Zardari government did not seriously investigate his death, and the unsolved crime sent a chilling signal to the Christian community that not even their leaders will be protected.  There was a recent break in the casewhen two Pakistani Taliban members arrested for their involvement in other crimes confessed to killing Bhatti.  However, this was due to dumb luck, not a tireless investigation.  Whether they will be prosecuted remains to be seen.

In addition, Pakistan's notorious blasphemy law is repeatedly used against religious minorities.  Most recently, a 29-year-old Christian named Sajjad Masih was found guilty in July of denigrating the Prophet Mohammed and sentenced to life in prison, despite the accuser recanting.  Reports indicate that mobs pressured the judge into the conviction and sentence.  With Masih's imprisonment, almost 40 individuals are serving life sentences or sitting on death row for blasphemy - a statistic unmatched by any other country in the world - the majority of which are believed to be Christians.  This includes Asia Bibi, the Christian mother of five who was sentenced to death for blasphemy in 2010, who continues to languish in jail.

But the Christian community isn't alone in its suffering.  USCIRF's Pakistan Religious Violence Project also recorded the killing of 635 Shi'a in 77 separate suicide bombings and targeted shootings between the same timeframe.  The Pakistani Taliban and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, another militant organization, repeatedly claimed credit.  Ahmadis continue to face drive-by shootings and live under an apartheid-like legal system that criminalizes their faith, while Hindus are reportedly leaving for India to escape the religiously-inspired violence against their community. 

Even members of the Muslim majority who dare encroach on the religious turf of extremists are not immune from violence.  The governor of Punjab province, Salman Taseer, paid with his life for criticizing the blasphemy law, while the Pakistani Taliban tried to assassinate young Malala Yousafzai for her advocacy for women's education, which they deemed un-Islamic. The Pakistani Taliban also targeted politicians they deemed "secular" during the run-up to the May election and afterwards.  Scores were killed from the more moderate Pakistan People's Party and the Awami National Party, which had a senior member murdered in August.

The Peshawar attackers are believed to be from Pakistani Jundullah, an offshoot of the Pakistani Taliban.  They justified the church attack because of the ongoing drone strikes by the United States, saying that they will continue to target non-Muslims until those end.  The terrorists see the churchgoers as symbols of the West, not as Pakistanis.  Unfortunately, Imran Khan, whose party runs Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province and Peshawar, seemed to give credence to this deeply problematic linkage in his comments after the attack, noting that a drone attack had occurred earlier that same day. 

Pakistan's political leaders have condemned the All Saints bombing, as did the National Assembly in a unanimous vote.  Sharif has also called off peace talks with the Pakistani Taliban as a consequence of the attack, after having recently built political consensus on negotiating with them and other militants.  International condemnation was universal and swift, coming from the United States, the United KingdomCanada, the European Union, the United Nations, and even Japan.  However, talk is cheap and more must be done to prevent future attacks.  Inaction will impact all Pakistanis, Muslim and non-Muslim alike.

What is needed is not complicated - it is basic law enforcement and legal reform.  The federal and provincial authorities must do more to provide protection, arrest perpetrators or those inciting violence, vigorously prosecute them, and send them to jail.  Turning a blind eye or continuing to enforce the blasphemy law will only further embolden militants and foster a culture of violent extremism and impunity.  The international community can help create political will by insisting that Pakistan address the violence, both on human rights grounds and also because of the destabilizing effect it is having on this nuclear-armed country.

Knox Thames is the Director of Policy and Research at the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.  The views expressed here are his own. 

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