The bombing in Peshawar, which killed at least 81 people and injured more than 100, drew widespread condemnation, and although Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif said the government would be “unable to move forward” with the dialogue, he did not state clearly that the initiative would be abandoned.
Neither did he announce any plans for a military offensive against the TTP, an ally of the Afghan Taliban and al-Qaeda which has strongholds in the north-west tribal belt, along the Pakistan-Afghan border.
Sharif, who is en route to New York for this week’s U.N. General Assembly meetings, called the attackers enemies of the country and insisted they had nothing to do with Islam.
For its part, the TTP Jundullah faction, claiming responsibility for the blasts, said the Christians were “enemies of Islam, therefore we target them.”
“We will continue our attacks on non-Muslims on Pakistani land,” spokesman Ahmed Marwat told wire services by phone. He was also quoted as linking the attack to U.S. drone strikes targeting terrorists in the tribal belt.
Two suicide bombers blew themselves up amid hundreds of worshippers outside the All Saints Church in Peshawar, as worshippers were leaving after services to get a free meal of rice offered on the front lawn, the Associated Press reported.
On September 10 the government agreed in consultation with political parties to launch another in a long series of attempts to negotiate a peace deal with the TTP.
Despite ceasefires, prisoner releases, pardons, and government agreement to allow the extremists to impose shari’a in the areas they control, every such initiative since the first in 2006 has ended in failure. Moreover, U.S. and International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) officials say they have worsened the security situation on both sides of the Pakistan-Afghan border.
Already the TPP has laid down conditions for entering talks, including the release of more prisoners and a pullout of troops from its strongholds.
In spite of the record of failures Sharif, like his predecessors, maintains that only a negotiated peace deal will end an insurgency that has cost tens of thousands of Pakistani lives.
The thinking mirrors that across the border in Afghanistan, where President Hamid Karzai is pursuing a peace initiative with the Afghan Taliban ahead of the declared December 2014 date for the completion of the ISAF mission.
One day before the attack on Peshawar’s 130 year-old All Saints Church, Sharif’s government freed a senior Afghan Taliban leader from prison at Karzai’s request, in a bid to facilitate that effort.
Abdul Ghani Baradar, described variously as the Taliban’s number two and its operational commander, was captured in a joint CIA-Pakistani operation in Karachi in February 2010.
‘Give peace a chance’ or ‘monumental folly’?
Peshawar is the capital of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the province formerly known as the North-West Frontier Province, which since elections this year has been governed by the party led by national opposition leader Imran Khan, a supporter of the TTP peace talks initiative.
Khan on Sunday condemned the church bombing, and called it an attempt to sabotage the peace drive.
A similar argument came from the Pakistan Observer’s deputy editor, Liaqat Toor, who wrote that the decision to “give peace a chance” was a wise one that “should not be made hostage to all these horrid events.”
But Imran Malik, a retired brigadier and former defense attache, argued in a column in The Nation, a Lahore daily, that dialogue with terrorists under current conditions was “monumental folly.”
“First, one must never negotiate anything with a terrorist group. It gives them the authenticity and credibility they crave for and which must of necessity be denied to them,” said Malik, who is now with the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies at the National University of Sciences and Technology.
“Second, Pakistan must always and only speak to the Taliban from a position of unassailable strength and superiority in all dimensions.”
The bishop of Lahore, Irfar Jamil, called Sunday’s attack the deadliest ever recorded against Pakistan’s Christians, who make up about two percent of the population of the world’s second-largest Islamic country.
“The life for minorities in Pakistan is getting worse day by day,” the Rev. Reuben Qamar of the Presbyterian Church of Pakistan said late Sunday. Human Rights Focus Pakistan president Naveed Walter agreed, saying a spate of recent attacks at churches and places of worship of other religious minorities made it clear nowhere was safe any longer.
Pakistan’s Christians are also disproportionately affected by Pakistan’s notorious blasphemy laws, which carry the death penalty for disparaging Mohammed or desecrating the Qur’an.
The government has long been urged to scrap the laws, or at least to amend them to prevent their widespread misuse.
Sunday’s attack came three days after the country’s Council of Islamic Ideology ruled in a unanimous decision that there was no need to amend the blasphemy laws. The council advises the legislature on whether laws are in line with Islam.
Asif Aqeel, director of the Community Development Initiative project of the European Center for Law and Justice, noted that unlike past attacks on Christians the one in Peshawar did not involve mobs angered by allegations of blasphemy.
“This is the first suicide attack on Pakistani Christians. Earlier incidents like that of Gojra and Joseph Colony were sporadic unorganized communal violence and not terrorism,” he said from Lahore. “It shows there is a shift of policy of religious terrorist organizations in Pakistan and the Pakistani Christian might be more vulnerable now.”
As for the peace talks, Aqeel said the church attack “conveys a message to the government that the terrorists are not going to go back even an inch. It is the government that has to accept its demands.”