At least 72 people died in a suicide bombing in a crowded park in Lahore, Pakistan. A splinter faction of the Pakistani Taliban, Jamaat ul-Ahrar, has claimed responsibility for the attack, which they say was directed as Pakistani Christians who were celebrating Easter in Gulshan-e-Iqbal Park.
“It was our people who attacked the Christians in Lahore, celebrating Easter,” Ehsanullah Ehsan, a spokesperson for the group, said. “It’s our message to the Government that we will carry out such attacks again until sharia [Islamic law] is imposed in the country.”
The bombing, which took place just by an area of the park designated for women and children, is the latest attack in recent years that has targeted the small yet important Christian community in this majority Muslim nation.
Who are Pakistan’s Christians?
Pakistan is a country of 190 million people, the vast majority of whom are Muslims. Christians make up around 1.5 per cent of the total population, according to the latest census, although some Christians argue that the Government under-counts their numbers, which they claim should be closer to 5 per cent.
Lahore, a city in the eastern province of Punjab, is one of a number of centres for the community in the country. Christians have a long history in the region, with Catholic missionaries first arriving from Europe in the late 1600s. Most of Pakistan’s Christians are the descendants of Hindus who had converted during the years of British rule. Often they were from a low caste and many have remained on the poorer edges of Pakistani society. However, the Christian minority has also contributed greatly to Pakistani society. Many of the best schools and colleges in Pakistan were established by Christians and attended by the country’s Muslim elite, and Christians have been among the most decorated and celebrated members of Pakistan’s military since independence.
Why has there been a growing rift?
Before partition, Pakistan was a more multi-ethnic place and many Christians supported the creation of a Muslim-majority Pakistan. The mass migration of people after 1947 and the split with Bangladesh in 1972 saw many non-Muslims, in particular Hindus, leave the state. However, for decades there was relatively good relations between the Muslim minority and the Christian Minority. Pamela Constable, a former Washington Post correspondent in Pakistan, says that it was only in the 1980s and 1990s that tensions began to fester. Writing last year, Constable pointed towards 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. Things grew worse after 2001 with the American response to the 9/11 attacks, “which many Pakistani Muslims saw as a foreign plot to defame their faith,” Constable writes. While most Christians and Muslims still coexist without incident, there has been a growing sense of concern among Pakistan’s Christian community, with many deciding to emigrate. In particular, Pakistan’s strict blasphemy law – which restricts any insults against the Islamic Prophet Muhammad and makes the crime punishable by death – is viewed by many activists as being abused to target religious minorities, including Christians.
What is the current situation?
A number of prominent political figures have been assassinated for opposing the blasphemy law, including Shahbaz Bhatti, the country’s only Christian cabinet member who was shot to death by gunmen in Islamabad in March 2011. There has also been a series of high-profile terror attacks on Christians in recent years. In 2013, a suicide bombing at a Church in Peshawar left more than 100 people dead, and a series of attacks at churches in Lahore left 14 dead. These attacks were attributed to the Pakistani Taliban or groups linked to them. Analysts suspect that attacks on religious minorities, including Shia Muslims and the Ahmadiyya Muslim sect, are aimed at destabilising Pakistan as a whole. The attack in Gulshan-e-Iqbal Park had also coincided with the deadline set by an alliance of religious groups for Punjab province to withdraw a controversial law that sought to protect women from violence and abuse. The law had been passed unanimously by Punjab’s Parliament in February. The Government of Punjab province has declared three days of mourning in response to the bombing. “Those who targeted innocent citizens do not deserve to be called humans,” Shahbaz Sharif, Punjab’s Chief Minister, posted on his Twitter account. “We will hunt you down.”
Affafa, who lost her parents and a sister in the bombing and has another sister and brother badly injured, sits in a room in Lahore, Pakistan. Photo / AP
What was the initial target of the suicide bomber in Lahore?
On one level, the bomber who slaughtered dozens of Pakistanis enjoying a day in the park was targeting Christians celebrating Easter Sunday. So far 72 people have died, including many women and children. Scores more were fighting for their lives in hospitals.
What was the other main target?
Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s vision of a more liberal, inclusive democracy in the Muslim-majority nation. Lahore is the biggest city in Punjab and Sharif’s hometown.
How severe was this attack compared to others?
The attack was the deadliest since Pakistan Taliban fighters entered an army school in December 2014 and massacred 134 students, shooting some point blank in the head. That strike prompted Sharif and military leaders to enact new measures to fight terrorists, leading to a reduction in violence that helped spur investor interest in the frontier economy.
How is this an attack on Sharif’s programme?
The latest bloodbath represents another pivot point for Sharif. In recent months he’s called for a more “educated, progressive, forward-looking” Pakistan, a country created for Muslims following independence from the British in 1947. In doing so, he’s backed moves to improve the lives of women and religious minorities – including Hindus, Christians and Shia Muslims – who have been frequent targets of sectarian violence. “Sharif seems to have taken some steps which the terrorists clearly are angered by,” said Farahnaz Ispahani, a Pakistani author and former MP. “The terrorists are continuing their quest to purify Pakistan of all religious minorities and those who don’t conform to their limited vision.”
What has the Prime Minister done?
Sharif condemned so-called ‘honour killings’ as a “dark side” of Pakistani society, and MPs in his political base of Punjab are backing a bill to protect women. His Government also unblocked YouTube and agreed to allow Easter and the traditional Hindu festivals of Diwali and Holi as public holidays. Perhaps most significantly, his Government in February executed Mumtaz Qadri, a bodyguard who shot a former Punjab governor in 2011 after the official sought to ease the country’s controversial blasphemy law. As rescuers raced to save victims of Monday’s terrorist attack, police in Islamabad clashed with Qadri sympathisers who wanted Sharif to adopt sharia law. “Sharif is suffering a blowback,” said Rohan Gunaratna, who runs the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University.
How badly is Pakistan suffering from terrorism?
The country has seen more than 60,000 people die from terrorism since 2001, as Pakistan Taliban insurgents based in the mountainous areas near Afghanistan look to overthrow democracy and implement Islamic sharia law. “Pakistan is today a victim of terrorism, and the world needs to understand that without constantly accusing it of being a perpetrator of terrorism,” Gunaratna said.
Why does the country struggle with perception over terrorism?
Pakistan battles to convince the world that it’s really serious about eliminating all terrorist groups. The military, which has ruled Pakistan for more than half of its history, has long used extremist groups as strategic assets against India and Afghanistan. Sharif himself has also relied on support from conservative elements in society to win elections. Punjab, which is governed by Sharif’s younger brother, has failed to take serious action against jihadist groups, according to Ikram Sehgal, a former military official and chairman of the Pathfinder Group, one of Pakistan’s largest security companies. “There is a complete network that has to be uprooted and destroyed,” Sehgal said. “The Punjab Government talks a lot but there’s no action. Unless you move against jihadis, their hideouts, their logistics, their personnel, their contacts, their complete network – these things will keep going on.”
What is Sharif saying?
The army conducted raids in cities throughout Punjab, arresting suspected terrorists and recovering weapons. “Our goal is not only to eliminate terror infrastructure but also the extremist mindset which is a threat to our way of life,” Sharif said today after reviewing security in Lahore. “We must take this war to the doors of terrorist outfits before they are able to hit our innocent country men.”
Can the Government make progress?
Whether Sharif follows through remains an open question. Pakistan has been accused time and again of tolerating militants who attack its neighbours while fighting back against those that strike within the country. Ispahani is sceptical. “There is no sign that the military strategic calculation has changed. It is still dissipating energies cornering secular and ethnic political forces instead of single-mindedly confronting jihadi groups.”
Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif talks to an injured victim of the suicide bombing during his visit to a hospital in Lahore. Photo / AP