Pakistan’s restive Balochistan province has been witnessing fresh wave of crime against the tiny Christian community, having registered its second attack on church this month and third since December last year.
The attackers have come from extremist Sunni Muslim outfits and the outlawed Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). But now the authorities find it convenient to blame it on the shadowy transnational Islamic State (IS) that experts say has made deep inroads into Afghanistan and Pakistan and preparing to target India.
While there are known to be linkages between IS and Lashkar-e-Jangvi, the Sunni extremist outfit, they have in fact carried out a number of joint operations. Among other terrorist groups, the profile of IS in particular is in the ascendant, Pakistani security experts have said.
The change of stance in blaming the IS is to tell the world that local militants are not involved, which is actually the case. Pakistan is generally sensitive to crime against Christians because much of its aid and charity come from the Christian West. Besides the US and European lawmakers take deep interest in attacks on Christians worldwide, especially in theocracies such as Pakistan.
At least two members of the Christian community were killed and five others injured in a firing incident near a church in Quetta last Sunday. The ploy often used is to target the Christians when they are gathered to offer prayers at church. DIG Quetta Abdur Razzaq Cheema was quoted in Dawn newspaper saying the incident occurred when worshippers were leaving after attending the Sunday service at a church in Essa Nagri area of the provincial capital.
Unidentified attackers riding a motorbike opened fire on the members of the Christian community and managed to flee the scene soon after the incident, the DIG said.
This was the second attack on Christians as earlier this month, on April 4, four members of a Christian family travelling in a rickshaw were killed in a firing incident on Quetta’s Shah Zaman road. The Christian family belonged to Punjab and had come to Quetta to see relatives.
Last December, nine people were killed and 30 injured in a suicide attack on the Bethel Memorial Methodist Church on Quetta’s Zarghoon Road.
At least two suicide attackers had then struck the Bethel Memorial Church while Sunday service was ongoing. There were 400 worshipers inside the church when the assault started.
In May 2017, the group kidnapped two Chinese nationals from the same city, alleging they were preaching Christianity, and murdered them a few months later.
Balochistan has witnessed sickening levels of sectarian violence during the last several years, mainly against members of the Shia Hazara community who are particularly vulnerable because of their distinctive physical features, Dawn newspaper published from |Karachi has commented in an editorial (April 4, 2018).
Aside from targeted killings, the latest of which claimed one man’s life and injured another this Sunday, many Hazaras have also been massacred in large-scale bombings such as those in early 2013. Most often, it is the virulently anti-Shia Lashkar-i-Jhangvi that has taken responsibility for these attacks.
Attacks targeting religious minorities in Balochistan and elsewhere in Pakistan, such as the suicide bombing at the iconic Sufi shrine Lal Shahbaz Qalandar mazar in Sindh last February which killed over 70 people, are increasingly being claimed by the extremists.
Total Christian population in Pakistan 2.5 million as in 2005. They are located especially in Punjab and Islamabad Capital Territory and speak Urdu, Punjabi and English. Approximately half are Roman Catholic and the other half Protestant.
In the mass population exchanges that occurred between Pakistan and India upon independence, most Hindus and nearly all Sikhs fled the country. Pakistani Punjab is now over two percent Christian, with very few Hindus left.
Christians have made some contributions to the Pakistani national life. The first non-Muslim Chief Justice of Pakistan Supreme Court was Justice A. R. Cornelius, an Agra-born Anglo-India. Pakistani Christians also distinguished themselves as great fighter pilots in the Pakistan Air Force. Notable amongst them are Cecil Chaudhry, Peter O’Reilly and Mervyn L Middlecoat.
Christians have also contributed as educationists, doctors, lawyers and businessmen. One of Pakistan’s cricketers, Yousuf Youhana, was born Christian, but later on converted to Islam, taking the Islamic name Mohammad Yousuf.
According to American journalist Pamela Constable, in the 1980s and 1990s tensions between Christians and Muslims in Pakistan began to “fester”. Constable credits the Soviet war in Afghanistan, the rise of military dictator General Mohammed Zia ul-Haq, and the influence of stricter religious teachings coming from the Gulf states as catalysts for the change. After the 9/11 attacks on the US, things grew worse with “many Pakistani Muslims” seeing the American response to the attacks “as a foreign plot to defame their faith.”
Pakistan’s Christian community has developed a “growing sense of concern”, particularly over the strict blasphemy laws – which restricts any insults against the Islamic prophet Muhammad and makes the crime punishable by death – which many activists viewed as “being abused to target religious minorities. In the 1990s, some Christians were arrested on charges of blasphemy, and for protesting that appeared to insult Islam. John Joseph, a bishop in Faisalabad committed suicide to protest the execution of a Christian man on blasphemy charges.