(CNSNews.com) – Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif vowed Monday to root out terrorism after a deadly suicide bombing targeted Christians enjoying an Easter outing, but the scale of the challenge faced by Christians was evident both in the carnage and in a mass protest by radical Islamists angered by the execution of a man they revere for killing a provincial governor accused of blaspheming Islam.
For Christians, the two events on Sunday – one in the Punjab capital, Lahore; the other in the federal capital, Islamabad – highlight the dangers they face in a country where even mutually hostile Islamists share a common animosity towards followers of Jesus Christ.
The group that claimed responsibility for the bombing in a Lahore park is a Tehreek-e-Taliban (TTP) offshoot formed in 2014 and calling itself Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, which has publicly declared support for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
Although victims included Christians and Muslims, Jamaat-ul-Ahrar’s spokesman boasted that the “martyrdom” operation was directed at “Christians as they were celebrating Easter,” and pledged more such attacks. Most of the at least 72 people killed were women and children, police reported. More than 300 people were injured.
Meanwhile, the thousands of Islamists who clashed with police and soldiers in Islamabad as they marked the one-month anniversary of the hanging of their hero, Mumtaz Qadri, are mostly members of Sunni Tehreek, a radical group within the Barelvi movement of Sunni Islam.
Although Barelvis vocally oppose the TTP, al-Qaeda and ISIS, their zeal for Mohammed, the Qur’an and shari’a presents a threat to Christians and other minorities hardly less dangerous than that posed by the jihadist bombers.
In 2011 Qadri fired at least 27 bullets into the man he was paid to protect, liberal Punjab governor Salman Taseer. The bodyguard accused the governor of blasphemy for speaking out in support of Asia Bibi, the first Christian woman to be sentenced to death under Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. (Asia Bibi, who was convicted of “blaspheming” Mohammed, is still on death row.)
Qadri, whose supporters have labeled “lover of the prophet,” was hanged on February 29. Tens of thousands of Sunni Tehreek members and others held a demonstration and sit-in at the “red zone” around key government installations in Islamabad Sunday, demanding that the government declare him a martyr, execute Asia Bibi and all other Christians accused of blasphemy, drop any plans to amend the blasphemy laws, and impose strict shari’a. The protest continued on Monday, though with fewer participants.
Sardar Mushtaq Gill, a human rights lawyer and head of Legal Evangelical Association Development (LEAD), a non-profit advocacy group, said early Tuesday that although the government says there is no link between the group responsible for Sunday’s bombing and the pro-Qadri protestors, “the demands of both are the same.”
“Christians in Pakistan are living under constant fear – from Muslim militants to extremists,” he said. “They are being persecuted due to their Christian faith. The purpose of blasphemy laws is only to keep silent people of other faiths.”
“Islamic militant and extremist factions are doing it systematically and their hidden purpose is to [make] extinct other faiths from Pakistan,” Gill said. “The blasphemy laws is a slow poisoning of Christians in Pakistan.”
Pakistan Christian Congress president Nazir Bhatti directed some of his criticism at the authorities.
He said the government sought to highlight the fact that Muslims were among the victims of the bombing, to downplay the fact it took place on Easter Sunday and targeted Christians – as terrorists had threatened to do.
Bhatti said the government was aware that threats had been made against Christians by terrorists since Qadri’s hanging, “but adequate security measure were not adopted.”
It was “ironic,” he said, that the Punjab provincial government had allowed the Sunni Tehreek protestors to begin their march to nearby Islamabad from the province’s territory and made no move to stop them. Now that the protesters were occupying the capital’s “red zone,” Bhatti said, the federal government was also not serious about dispersing them.
Following the bombing, the chief of the army ordered the army and paramilitary Rangers to mount an operation in Punjab aimed at hunting down those responsible.
But Bhatti was skeptical. “I am not sure that any culprit will be brought before the law, like [after] other attacks on churches killing Christian worshipers,” he said. “Justice will never be ensured.”
‘Seeds of religious extremism’
Sunday’s bombing was the second most deadly attack to target Christians in Pakistan, after a Sept. 2013 suicide bombing at a church in Peshawar, which cost more than 80 lives, and was claimed by the TTP.
The South Asia Terrorism Portal, a project of the Institute for Conflict Management (ICM) in New Delhi, has recorded at least 20 other terrorist attacks specifically targeting Christians in Pakistan since 2001, with a total of more than 200 fatalities.
They include a twin suicide bombing last March at two churches in Lahore, which killed at least 15 people and was also claimed by Jamaat-ul-Ahrar.
Pakistani forces since mid-2014 have been carrying out an anti-terror operation in the northwestern tribal belt. Addressing the nation on Monday evening, Sharif said the offensive would continue until the menace of terrorism has been rooted out.
“We have achieved major objectives through this operation, but our mission to completely efface the cancer of terrorism will continue,” he said.
For years, however, critics have accused Pakistan of using militants as a foreign policy tool, pointing to links between its Inter-Services Intelligence agency and terrorists like the Taliban and the Haqqani network in Afghanistan.
Alluding to those criticisms, ICM research fellow Ajit Kumar Singh said Monday Pakistan’s regional policies have “produced a bloody blowback” at home.
“The seeds of religious extremism sown over the decades have brought Pakistan to the verge of virtual anarchy,” he said. “State-backed extremism has made life impossible for minorities and, indeed, for Muslim sects deemed ‘deviant’ by the Sunni majority.”
As for Christians – who account for about 1.6 percent of the population – they have been targeted not only for terrorism but “have also been intermittently attacked in mass and targeted violence by Islamist extremists,” Singh said.
Christians have also been “systematically targeted by Pakistan’s perverse blasphemy laws,” he said, in reference to the laws under which Asia Bibi was sentenced to death.
Another prominent Pakistani who stood up for Asia Bibi was federal minorities minister Shahbaz Bhatti, a Christian. Weeks after Taseer was killed, Bhatti was shot dead by unidentified gunmen who left behind pamphlets accusing him of blasphemy.
Since 2001, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has recommended that the State Department designate Pakistan as a “country of particular concern,” citing violence against Christians and other minorities.
The State Department has overruled the recommendation each year. Last year the USCIRF named Pakistan as the worst violator among a small group of countries that have not been designated despite its advice.