(Update: Adds comment from Naveed Walter of Human Rights Focus Pakistan)
(CNSNews.com) – Pope Francis appealed Sunday for an end to the persecution of Christians around the world, voicing “much pain” at the news of twin suicide bombings targeting churches in Pakistan and suggesting that the world plays down the fact that Christians are being targeted.
“These are Christian churches: Christians are being persecuted,” he told a crowd gathered in St Peter’s Square. “Our brothers shed blood only because they are Christians.”
“As I assure you of my prayers for the victims and their families, I ask the Lord, I beseech the Lord, source of all goodness, for the gift of peace and harmony for that country,” he continued, “and that this persecution against Christians, which the world tries to hide, might end, and that there may be peace.”
At least 15 people were killed and more than 75 wounded when suicide bombers detonated their charges minutes apart near the entrances of two churches – one Catholic, the other Anglican – near each other in Lahore, capital of Punjab province and Pakistan’s second-most populous city.
A splinter faction of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) claimed responsibility for the blasts, and threatened more attacks.
Pakistan’s Express Tribune daily reported that the bombers had been stopped at the entrances by congregation members serving as security guards, noting that the death toll would have likely been far greater had the terrorists managed to get inside the packed churches.
The latest attack directed at Christians came nine months after Pakistan’s Supreme Court ordered the government to take specific steps to protect religious minorities, including setting up a “special police force” trained to protect their places of worship.
As news of the attack spread Christians angered by the government’s evident failure to take the measures took to the streets in Lahore and several other cities. Some in the Lahore crowd attacked two people suspected of being associates of the attackers, and police said the two were burned to death.
In an editorial Dawn, Pakistan’s oldest daily newspaper, expressed concern that the government’s failure to act was widening fissures in society and leading to a vigilante response.
“While all mob violence is deplorable, perhaps the lesson for the state here is that endless violence and horrors visited on a population lead to fear taking over and ugliness manifesting itself,” it said.
Church leaders called for calm, and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif pledged that his government was resolved to eradicating terrorism and extremism from Pakistan.
Christians who have heard such promises before were unimpressed.
“Government authorities failed in protecting the worship places of religious minorities,” said Human Rights Focus Pakistan president Naveed Walter, blaming the attack on major security lapses.
Walter warned that minorities may launch acts of civil disobedience in the absence of government action.
He said that, almost nine months after the Supreme Court order, its implementation was in doubt.Last June the court ordered the federal government to establish a special police force to protect religious minorities and to set up a taskforce to develop strategies to tackle religious intolerance. The latter was to address problems of biased school curricula and the use of social media for spreading religious hatred.
The ruling was made in response to the deadliest attack ever against the country’s Christian minority – the deaths at least 80 people in a Sept. 2013 church suicide bombing in Peshawar, claimed by the TTP. The court also ordered the government to pay compensation to the victims of that attack.
“The Supreme Court ordered to protect the churches and other worship places of religious minorities by establishing special task forces through law enforcement agencies,” Walter said from Lahore on Monday. “Nothing has been done until this day.”
Asked about the civil disobedience warning, he said such action could take the form of not obeying government institutions, and burning government utility bills or minority tax bills, “as the government is failing to protect minorities.”
Walter repudiated the violent response to the bombing by some protesters, saying that “the Christians are peaceful citizens and they record their agitations peacefully.”
Punjab a center of persecution
Violence against Christians, who account for two percent of Pakistan’s population of 180 million, has been increasing in recent years.
Between 2004 and 2011 Pakistan did not feature on the top ten of the annual Open Doors USA watchlist of the world’s worst persecutors of Christians. In 2012 Pakistan entered the top ten in tenth position. This year it hold the number eight spot.
Despite the deteriorating situation, the State Department has since 2002 overruled the annual recommendation of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom for Pakistan to be designated a “country of particular concern” for egregious religious freedom violations.
Punjab province is closely associated with Sharif, and his Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) party controls the provincial government.
Pakistan Christian Congress president Nazir Bhatti accused the Punjab government of failing to protect churches, allowing those responsible for attacks on Christians and Christian places of worship to “walk free on the streets.”
Punjab had become a haven for extremists, Bhatti said, adding that the PML-N party moreover enjoys the political support of such groups.
He urged the provincial government to do its job, protect churches and arrest and punish the culprits of Sunday’s bombings.
Punjab has been Pakistan’s worst hit area for attacks on Christians and other minorities, many of them actions linked to the country’s notorious blasphemy laws, which outlaw desecrating the Qur’an and insulting Mohammed, making the offenses punishable by death or life imprisonment. They include:
--the arrest and conviction of Asia Bibi, who in 2010 became the first Christian woman in Pakistan to be sentenced to death for supposedly insulting Mohammed, and who remains on death row.
--the murder of Punjab Governor Salman Taseer, a moderate Muslim who sought a pardon for Asia Bibi and was shot dead in 2011 by a member of his bodyguard, angered by the governor’s support for amending the blasphemy laws.
--the murder last year of a Pakistani-American doctor belonging to the minority Ahmadi sect that is loathed by radical Sunnis and targeted under national anti-Ahmadi laws.
--the murder last November of a pregnant mother and her husband, beaten and burned to death by a mob angered by rumors of Qur’an desecration.