Why did militants attack Pakistani Christians?

More than 80 people were killed yesterday leaving a Christian church in Pakistan, potentially derailing the new government's plan to hold talks with the Pakistani Taliban.

Anjum Naveed/AP
Pakistani Christians participate in a demonstration to condemn a suicide attack on a church in Peshawar, Pakistan, Monday, Sept. 23, 2013 in Islamabad, Pakistan.

At least 81 people were killed, and 120 were injured, when two suicide bombers detonated their vests as Christian church-goers were leaving Sunday Mass at the All Saints Church in the northern city of Peshawar.

Jandullah and Junood-ul-Hifsa, two militant groups known for their connections to of the Pakistani Taliban, have taken responsibility for the attack, saying that it was retaliation for drone strikes carried out by the United States in the country's northern belt. The Pakistani Taliban has condemned the bombings, leaving observers confused as to who is behind the killings, according to the BBC.

The bombings highlight the militants’ attempt to grab headlines, says Amir Rana, director of the Pakistan Institute of Peace Studies. They want to ensure that they remain a relevant actor in Pakistani and global politics. 

“The data tells us that the number of attacks and casualties has decreased in the second quarter of 2013. If you hold that up against what we have seen in the last few months, there is a clear indication that militant groups are carrying out more sensational operations that will ensure that they get on the front page,” says Mr. Rana.

There were three high profile attacks in June – one against a busload of female students and a medical complex in the southwestern city of Quetta and the other against nine foreign mountain climbers in the northern Gilgit-Baltistan territory. These incidents got international attention. Gilgit-Baltistan has long been considered safe for tourists, and no one was expecting an attack at such a neutral location as a hospital.

“They are picking targets that are more controversial. They want more spectacular, attention-grabbing attacks,” says Rana.

Christians are one of the most poor and vulnerable groups in Pakistan. They have consistently been politically, economically, and socially marginalized, and frequently have been targeted in acts of violence. However, this is the first time in a decade that militant groups have carried out such a large-scale attack against the Christian community.

Analysts say that this attention seeking has succeeded in throwing a wrench in the new government's plans to shore up peace in the country's northern belt.

The latest attack came just two weeks after the prime minister won support from parties across the political divide to open up fresh negotiations with the Pakistani Taliban, known to have 30 militant factions under its wing.

During a stopover in London on his way to the UN General Assembly in New York, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif said that the attack could stall the government's intended negotiations with the Pakistani Taliban.

Some worry that not having talks could backfire, meaning more violence in the northern belt and more attacks against minority groups. 

The fact that the Pakistani Taliban has presented a set of demands, such as release of prisoners, on the basis of which they are willing to start talks, indicated that there might be a way forward say some observers.

But, cautions Cyril Almeida, a political analyst based in Islamabad, “The state has been the one pushing these negotiations. In all of our debates and talk of speaking to the militants, there is no real indication that they are interested.”

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