PESHAWAR, Pakistan — It has become an all too familiar narrative: Muslim militants in some majority Islamic country going out of their way to kill and intimidate the local Christian populace.
What happened this past Sunday in Pakistan, however, has shocked even the most jaded and cynical observers.
Peshawar’s All Saints Church is an Anglican parish that has existed since 1893. Around noon, after services this past Sunday, two suicide bombers, each wearing 13 pounds of explosives, forced their way past two police guards and detonated their devices. At least 83 people have died from the blast, including 34 women and seven children, with more than 175 people injured. The attack decimated entire families.
Prior to the blast, worshippers had been milling around the courtyard enjoying the free food the parish offers to the poor each week.
The Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) immediately claimed responsibility for the attack, saying more would occur unless the United States stopped using drone strikes to go after Islamist insurgents. Agence France-Presse quoted the TTP’s spokesman as saying, “[The Christians] are the enemies of Islam; therefore, we target them. We will continue our attacks on non-Muslims on Pakistani land.”
In response, Christians — who constitute only about 2% of Pakistan’s 190 million residents, with Catholics accounting for about half of all Christians — held rallies throughout the nation and shut down major roads in protest over the lack of protection afforded them.
Political Leaders Condemn Terror
And while Pakistan’s political leaders have largely exhibited silence following similar incidents in the past, even the ruling parties condemned the violence.
Several high-ranking government officials hurriedly flew to Peshawar before nightfall, with the interior minister promising a security plan specifically designed for churches and other places of worship.
Speaking during a trip to London, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif said, “Terrorists have no religion, and targeting innocent people is against the teachings of Islam and all religions.” Pakistan’s largest English-language newspaper Dawn said this “statement appeared to [define] a new government policy on the Taliban.” Sharif also indicated the bombing would prevent his government from sitting down with the Taliban for peace talks, which had been in the works.
Dawn also reported, “Former president [and current opposition leader] Asif Ali Zardari said no words were strong enough to condemn the barbaric and cruel attack on peaceful citizens.”
Zardari said: “The attack should serve to [show] ... [the] militants cannot be appeased; they must not be,” for they threaten “[our] values, our way of life and our very survival.”
Despite this, many believe such responses are less motivated by heartfelt outrage than by political calculation. For instance, when one ruling party member of Parliament showed up at Peshawar’s main hospital, he gave reporters a statement but made no attempt to meet with victims. Some also say the ruling party was shamed into its outreach because of the quick response shown by opposition parties.
Interestingly, some Muslim leaders said “this barbaric incident was a conspiracy against Islam.”
In the wake of the attack, the provincial government announced it would pay $47,259 per dead person to their families, while each injured party would receive $18,903. This is a considerable sum in a nation where the per capita annual income is just $1,254.
Epicenter of Muslim Militancy
Peshawar is located within the Diocese of Islamabad-Rawalpindi, and just 20,000 Catholics live here, meaning they make up just over half of 1% of the city’s 3.6 million population.
The city is in the heart of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (formerly called the North West Frontier Province), which has been the epicenter of Muslim militant activities for years. Indeed, the Taliban-controlled Swat Valley just to the north of here instituted sharia (Islamic law) as its guiding legal code in 2009.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa has also been the epicenter for much of the country’s anti-Christian violence. Still, while Pakistan’s small and largely poor Christian community suffers incredible discrimination, bombings against them are exceedingly rare.
Following American reprisals in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001, radical Muslims called for the deaths of and attacks on Christians as agents of the West. In May 2002, a bomb hoax “created panic” at Presentation Convent High School in Peshawar’s center.
In 2007, area churches received letters telling them to become Muslim or face suicide bombers. As UCA News reported at the time, the letter stated, “All residents are given an open invitation to leave Isaiyat (Christianity), the religion of infidelity, and embrace Islam. Become Muslims and reserve a home for yourself in heaven. Or else your community will be ruined ... and you will be responsible for the destruction of your life and property. This is not a mere threat; our suicide bombers will exterminate you. Consider it a knock of death.”
The threat of suicide bombing was likely diminished at the time because many mosques endorsed a ruling by local imams that suicide attacks are forbidden.
Then, in March 2011, St. Thomas Church in nearby Wah Cantt underwent attack by armed gunmen, who tried to set the church’s attendant on fire. It was the third attack on a Pakistani church that week, all motivated by the burning of the Quran by Terry Jones, who pastors a 50-member Florida congregation.
Possibly exacerbating this situation in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is the rapidly increasing pace in recent years of what some experts call Talibanization. This has been influenced by the growing population of mujahideen attracted to the area or driven out of neighboring Afghanistan by the war on terror.
However, with opinion of the U.S. at an all-time low locally because of the administration’s heavy use of drone bombing, it seems evident more radical elements have decided to ignore the 2007 ruling by local imams forbidding suicide attacks.
Indeed, while news of the attack dominated the front page of Monday’s Dawn, another headline read, “Six killed in drone attack.” Although four of the dead were foreign fighters, two Pakistani villagers were also killed.
Speaking Sept. 22 in Cagliara, Sardinia, Pope Francis said about the Anglican church massacre, “Today, in Pakistan, because of a wrong choice, a decision of hatred, of war, there was an attack in which over 70 people died.”
“This choice cannot stand,” the Holy Father said. “It serves nothing. Only the path of peace can build a better world.”
Register correspondent Brian O’Neel writes from Coatesville, Pennsylvania.