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The Plight of Pakistan’s Christian Minority

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The Pulse

The Plight of Pakistan’s Christian Minority

The attacks in Peshawar were a brutal turning point for the nation’s Christians. Could they change minority rights?

Before September 22, 2013, Christians in Pakistan defined history in two parts: before the blasphemy laws and after the blasphemy laws. That definition has now changed. History is now split into a time before the Peshawar tragedy and after. The suicide bombings in Peshawar changed the way Christian minority thinks about the concept of nationalism.

The two simultaneous suicide attacks on the historic All Saints church left more than 80 dead and 100 wounded. The bombers used shrapnel in the explosive material for maximum impact, and thus most of the wounded are still in a critical condition. Others remain missing after the huge explosion in the overcrowded church.

The Davids were one of the families caught up in the attack. The eyewitness account by the family’s only surviving member, a teenage girl, explains how the horror unfolded at the church. The family was emerging with others from the church after the service when a scuffle was heard at the security checkpoint at the entrance. The scuffle was followed by a loud explosion as the first suicide bomber detonated his explosives near the entrance. Families ran in panic when the second suicide bomber entered the church and rushed toward the crowd. He then blew himself up, along with hundreds of innocent worshippers. Five members of the David family were amongst the dead. The eldest brother was studying to be a doctor and loved to paint. His surviving sister now stares at his paintings and mourns his death, and the death of other family members. Many other families were wiped out in the attacks.

The Peshawar attacks are a brutal turning point for the mostly peaceful Christian minority in Pakistan. Never in the past has the community been targeted directly in a terror strike, notwithstanding the volatile situation in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwah province. Most attacks by extremist factions led by the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) have targeted security officials and other Islamic sects. Christians and other minorities had always kept out of the war.

An extremist faction named Jandullah has claimed responsibility for the attacks, saying they are a reaction to the frequent U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan’s northern region, near the Afghan border. Jandullah links itself to TTP, but for its part TTP has denied any link. Through a spokesperson, the TTP insisted that it was not responsible for any attack on Christians nor would it be.

Notwithstanding that reassurance, the killing of two well known Christian politicians and a rise in cases involving the blasphemy law augur a difficult future for Christians in Pakistan. The 1.6 percent of Pakistanis who are Christians are seldom involved in extremist activities. But the recent attacks have sparked protests across the country, with protesters chanting slogans against the Pakistan federal and provincial governments. Worried at the prospect of another Joseph Colony incident, security forces are on high alert.

The 200,000 Christians in Khyber Pakhtunkhwah province, including the surviving member of the David family, do not wish to leave their hometowns. However, the deteriorating security situation may leave them with no choice. The protestors are now demanding something more than security. The slogans been shouted are slowly changing to better employment opportunities and legislation to avoid the abuse of blasphemy laws to persecute minorities.

Perhaps the most surprising outcome of all this is the fact that the messages mostly being communicated by Christian and Islamic scholars are the same: the attacks were carried out by anti-state elements who do not wish to see inter-faith harmony develop in Pakistan. The suicide bombings in Peshawar may have their roots in the complex Taliban network in Pakistan, but they could conceivably end up revolutionizing the concept of minority rights in Pakistan.

Malik Ayub Sumbal is an award-winning journalist based in Islamabad. He tweets @ayubsumbal