LAHORE, Pakistan — Christian networks in Pakistan, and Church officials led by Pope Francis, have joined the chorus of condemnation of the deadly suicide bomb blast that left at least 72 people dead, including 20 Christians, and nearly 300 injured in a bomb blast in Lahore’s Gulshan-e-Iqbal Park on Easter Sunday.

Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, a Pakistani Taliban faction, claimed responsibility for the massacre and said Christians were the intended victims. Christians constitute only about 1.6% of Pakistan’s 190 million people, with this Christian population of 3 million divided approximately equally between the Catholic Church and various Protestant denominations.

Condemning the “reprehensible” suicide-bomb blast that “bloodied” Easter, Pope Francis, during his Regina Caeli address, in St. Peter’s Square said, “I wish to express my closeness to all those affected by this cowardly and senseless crime and ask you to pray to the Lord for the numerous victims and their loved ones.”

The Holy Father also urged the government in Pakistan and “all the social components of [Pakistan] to do everything possible to restore security and peace to the population and, in particular, to the most vulnerable religious minorities.”

In a March 28 statement, the National Commission for Justice and Peace (NCJP) of the Pakistan Catholic Bishops’ Conference condemned “the tragic attack on innocent people in a public park.”

“Killing innocent people, in particular women and children, in the name of religion is unacceptable,” said the statement from the NCJP, which is chaired by Bishop Joseph Arshad of Faisalabad.

“While the motive was to target the Christians, so many of our Muslim brothers, sisters, children and families who were also visiting the park, on account of [the] Sunday holiday, fell victim to this brutal attack,” the statement noted.

“We pray for all the victims of this attack, as they were all Pakistanis,” said the NCJP, which is the social voice of the Church in Pakistan.

The commission also urged the government “to bring the perpetrators to justice and to tighten its measures for protection of all citizens, including minorities and vulnerable communities.”

 

Children and Families Targeted

Police sources have been quoted as saying that at least 29 of the 72 killed in the blast were children.

“The government death toll of Christians is now 15. But our count is more than 20 dead,” Shane Choudhury, the NCJP secretary, told the Register March 30.

Since the poor Christian families live in crammed shelters, Choudhury pointed out, “They wanted to go out and celebrate Easter leisurely in the park. Since the park has joy rides and other facilities, it was a big attraction for them.”

With a Taliban affiliate asserting that the blast was specifically aimed at Christians, Choudhury said that “since the security around churches had been beefed up, they chose the park as a soft target.”

Wearing black armbands, more than 200 mourners took part in the March 28 candlelight vigil for victims of the bombing and placed flowers near children’s rides in the park where the bomb was detonated.

Catholic nuns and priests joined civil-rights activists and lawyers at the vigil, calling for unity and holding placards condemning the bombing and reading, “Terrorism has no religion” and “No to Talibanization.”

Reports say similar vigils were held in several cities across Pakistan.

Choudhury said the government has announced compensation of approximately $10,000 to the relatives of each of those killed and $2,000 to those seriously injured in the blast.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif vowed to crack down on Islamist militants in the country, after visiting the injured in hospital.

“The terrorists, being deprived of their refuges and training centers, have now resorted to targeting soft targets such as parks and schools. ... We will avenge every last drop of our countrymen’s blood,” he said during a televised address to the nation on March 28.

 

‘Innocent People’

“The suicide bomb attack on innocent people, mostly women and children in Lahore, by terrorist groups, is a heinous crime,” said Mathews George Chunakara, general secretary of Christian Conference of Asia (CCA), which is the Asian forum for non-Catholic churches. 

The CCA official said that he was shocked to learn that the victims of the blast were from poor Christian settlements in the Youhanabad and Bahar Colony areas of Lahore who were spending time with their children in the park after Easter services in churches. 

“It is unfortunate that sectarian violence and blatant terrorism is continuously taking place in Pakistani society due to widespread religious hatred against Christian minorities,” said Chunakara.

The CCA official recalled the suicide attacks carried out in 2013 at All Saints Church in Peshawar that killed 80 worshippers and wounded hundreds and suicide bombings at two churches in the Youhanabad area in March 2015 that claimed several more lives.

Added Chunnakara, “The increasing trend of attacks against innocent people raises questions over the security measures by the government to protect the lives of its citizens.”

The independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan in a statement said the attack should be “an eye-opener” for the government and security forces.

 “Many of the victims were children, who fell prey to the suicide bomber, who chose to detonate his explosives near the park’s play area. A Taliban faction has reportedly claimed responsibility for this reprehensible deed, which it said targeted Christians celebrating Easter,” the commission stated.

“Amid the prevailing security situation, it is difficult to understand why there was practically no security at the park,” the human-rights watch group noted.

Security and intelligence failures, the commission said, “played into the hands of those who have an infinite thirst for blood.”

 

 

Register correspondent Anto Akkara is based in Bangalore, India.