KARACHI, Pakistan — While joining the global mourning over the deadly Taliban attack on an army school in Peshawar that has left 148 children and others dead, the Catholic Church in Pakistan has called for a scaling down of Christmas festivities.
Condemning the “brutal attack” on the school children, Archbishop Joseph Coutts of Karachi, the president of Pakistan's Catholic Bishops' Conference (PCBC), urged Christians in a press statement on Dec. 17 to celebrate Christmas “in a somber manner, as a mark of respect for all victims of terror attacks.”
As many as 132 students and 16 staff perished in the attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar on Dec. 16, after heavily armed Taliban insurgents entered the school posing as army officers and went on a shooting spree.
Among the dead were a 5-year-old kindergarten girl attending her first day at the school, as well as its 59-year-old principal, Tahira Qazi, who was killed with a grenade after she locked herself in a bathroom. The seven assailants who carried out the terror strike were chased and shot dead by army personnel who rushed to the school.
Prayers for All Victims
Apart from appealing to all Catholic schools to hold special prayers for the victims of the school attack, Archbishop Coutts also called for prayers “for Christians who were martyred in Peshawar last year: the brick-kiln workers Shahzad and Shama, vaccinators working against polio and other innocent victims of senseless violence and terrorism.”
On Sept. 22, 2013, a twin suicide-bomb attack on a Sunday congregation at All Saints' Church in Peshawar, belonging to the Church of Pakistan, had killed 127 worshippers and left more than 250 injured. It was the deadliest attack on the Christian minority in the history of Pakistan.
A Christian couple — Shahzad Masih and his pregnant wife, Shama, the mother of their three children — who worked as bonded laborers in a brick kiln in the Kasur district of Punjab province were tortured and burnt alive on Nov. 4 of this year, over allegations of blasphemy made against them.
Salma Farooqi, a 30-year-old health worker involved for years in Peshawar’s battle against polio, was kidnapped and shot dead by the Taliban in March this year. Four vaccination workers were shot dead Nov. 26 in Quetta, the capital of Baluchistan province.
Reports say that Islamic militants view polio vaccinations as a cover for espionage or a Western conspiracy to sterilize Muslims. Thirty-five polio workers have been killed this year in Pakistan, a nation that accounts for 80% of polio cases worldwide, with 262 cases reported in 2014, according to Human Rights Watch.
“On the birthday of Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace … all Christians [must] work together with fellow citizens, [so] that Pakistan may be free from the scourge of violence and terrorism,” urged Archbishop Coutts.
‘Barbaric, Inhuman and Cowardly’
In a press statement, the National Commission for Justice and Peace of Pakistan’s Catholic Bishops' Conference condemned the Peshawar killing as “one of the most horrific and inhumane acts.”
“This is a barbaric, inhuman and cowardly act,” said Cecil Shane Chaudhry, the commission’s executive director.
“It is beyond imagination how innocent children of army personnel could be targeted like this,” said Chaudhry.
News reports have quoted Taliban spokesmen claiming responsibility for the deadly attack on the army school “in retaliation” for ongoing army operations against Taliban fighters in the North Waziristan tribal area, located close to Peshawar.
“We selected the army’s school for the attack because the government is targeting our families and females. We want them to feel pain,” said Muhammad Umar Khorasani, a spokesman for the militant group. Later, it released a photograph of the group that carried out the attack.
According to South Asia Terrorism Portal, nearly 13,000 lives have been lost in army operations from 2005 to February 2014 in Pakistan’s restive Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, earlier known as North West Frontier Province, which has Peshawar as its capital. Those killed include more than 4,700 civilians, 1,700 security forces and 6,500 militants.
Reports say casualties have been much higher more recently, with the Pakistani security forces stepping up operations against the Taliban in June 2014 in the porous border areas with Afghanistan, where the Taliban rules the region’s remote hinterlands.
“The government, both federal and provincial, along with the intelligence agencies, should take serious and effective measures to prevent such an atrocity,” said the National Commission for Justice and Peace.
“We are running out of demands for human rights and now plead to the governments, all political parties, religious leaders … and judiciary to set aside all their personal and political differences and join hands to end the menace of this menace of terrorism collectively,” urged the commission.
Meanwhile, Pakistan’s army has claimed that it retaliated the deadly Taliban attack on the army school by killing 57 militants in massive airstrikes in the tribal region, where the six suicide bombers reportedly had been trained.
However, Peter Jacob, former executive director of the National Commission for Justice and Peace, told the Register: “Besides a military response, terrorism needs an ideological response too, which has been lacking so far.”
“I would like to see the government present a counter narrative in an effective way, through removing hate speech in public life against different religions and sects and, importantly, from the school textbooks,” said Jacob. “As long as the breeding grounds for religion-based intolerance remain, violence is likely to reoccur, unfortunately.”
Anto Akkara writes from Bangalore, India.