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Christian anger mounts in Pakistan. New 'soft targets' for Taliban? (+video)

Suicide bombers hit Catholic and Protestant churches on Sunday, and four Shiite mosques have been attacked. Christians took to the streets Monday in an unusual display of anger.

An unprecedented set of riots by Christians in Pakistan following suicide bombings in two churches shows that religious minorities here are increasingly fearful of being targeted in – and possibly pushed out of – the majority Sunni Muslim nation.

Christians abandoned their normally low-key response to attacks by clashing with police and vandalizing property after Taliban militants attacked Catholic and Protestant churches in Lahore Sunday, with 15 congregants killed. 

The bombings took place in one of the largest Christian neighborhoods in Pakistan, known as Youhanabad, that has nearly 100,000 residents. Lahore itself is the home of Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

While the Christian protests started peacefully and included children, they turned angry and ugly. Christians took to the streets in a number of cities, and in Lahore three people were killed. A Muslim wrongly accused of helping the suicide bombers was subsequently lynched on Sunday, and on Monday, two Christians were run over by car, according to police.

The Taliban appear to be using religious minorities as “soft targets” in Pakistan – on the assumption that attacks on Christians and Shiite Muslims will win them sympathy with a local audience here that has been steadily radicalized over a number of years. Religious minorities concur that they are an increasingly likely target – and argue that they are being ignored by a government that should protect them.

“The violent response from the Christian community is a dangerous trend,” says Peter Jacob, director of the Center for Social Justice, a minority rights NGO in Lahore. “There is an utter sense of deprivation among the Christian community and other such religious minorities."

Christians make up 2 percent of Pakistan’s 95 percent Sunni Muslim population. Shiites make up less than 15 percent and resent what they often say is second-class status in Pakistan's Muslim world.

Analysts describe minorities as an alternative target by the Pakistani variant of the Taliban. The Pakistani Taliban's high-profile assault on an Army school in Peshawar in December left nearly 150 students and teachers dead. Following a national outcry over the brutal killings, the Pakistan government vowed to crack down, and unveiled a national action and counter-terrorism plan.

The Taliban's response has been to assault four Shiite mosques and now two churches, apparently with the calculation that it would meet with little significant pushback.   

“The government does not come under the same pressure from the public, media, and the civil society as it does when mainstream Pakistanis are attacked,” says researcher Rabia Mehmood, of the Islamabad-based Jinnah Institute. 

Ms. Mehmood, who has worked extensively on minority rights and is compiling a report on the topic, believes that since the pressure is not there, the government response is weak.

“Also, attacking minorities only ensures that terrorist groups like the Pakistani Taliban do not lose their appeal within the larger Muslim Sunni society, especially the religious extremist groups from where they find recruits,” she adds.

Mr. Jacob, who grew up in a Christian household, feels that rioting by Christian youths cannot be condoned. But, he says, “with systematic state persecution over the years and recent non-state violence toward [Christians], minority groups, especially the young ones among them, are now feeling frustrated with government’s lack of protection for their community.”

Human rights activists say the government should introduce reforms that improve relations between different parts of society. Studies show numerous forms of discrimination in areas ranging from school curricula to the media to the law.

“The religious minorities in Pakistan feel disconnected when it comes to government policies,” Jacob adds. “And if such gaps are not addressed, there will be further polarization in a society that is already so intolerant toward religious minorities."

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