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by Zia Ur Rehman

January 4, 2014

http://www.thefridaytimes.com/tft/a-somber-christmas/

Reeling from harsh memories of the brutal September 22 attack on the All Saints Church in Peshawar, the Christian community in Pakistan celebrated a ‘somber’ Christmas this year.

More than 80 worshippers were killed and around 130 injured in what is believed to be the deadliest attack yet on Pakistan’s Christian community. Two suicide bombers blew themselves up in the courtyard of the Church when worshippers were exchanging greetings after a service.  Among the dead were 34 women, seven children and two Muslim police officers.

Jundul Hifsa, an affiliate group of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), had claimed responsibly for the attack. “We carried out the suicide bombings at the Peshawar church and will continue to strike foreigners and non-Muslims until the American drone attacks stop,” Ahmadullah Marwat, a spokesman for the group, told a foreign news agency by phone.  “The Christians are the enemies of Islam and Pakistan. Therefore, we have targeted them and we will continue our attacks on non-Muslims on Pakistani soil,” Marwat was quoted as saying.

“We did not celebrate Christmas with the same fervor as the past because a large number of our dear ones were not with us this year,” said Junaid Saqib, a Christian leader belonging to the Qaumi Watan Party, who lost eleven relatives in the twin blasts. Another worshipper, who was present at the Church, said that they were not afraid. “You can see that despite the element of fear, people are thronging churches and the number of worshippers is high this Christmas.” He said he used to go to the Church occasionally, but has become regular since the attack.

Aneela Masih, who is a nurse at a private hospital in Peshawar, lost her brother and two cousins. She said that it was very difficult to celebrate Christmas without them. “I have not been able to forget the horrible memories of September 22.”

Christians are the second largest religious minority in Pakistan after Hindus. They are 1.6 percent of the total population of Pakistan and 43 percent of all non-Muslim population, said Dr Christine Amjad Ali, the director of the Christian Study Centre in Rawalpindi. A majority of the 2.5 million Pakistani Christians lives in Punjab and a little more than half of them live in six central Punjab districts – Lahore, Faisalabad, Kasur, Sheikhupura, Gujranwala and Sialkot. “Almost every fifth Pakistani Christian is a Lahori,” she said.

A woman cries looking at the picture of her daughter who was killed in the September 22 attack on the All Saints Church in Peshawar

After the emergence of Taliban groups in Pakistan, the community is living in a state of fear, Christian activists say. “Christians and Ahmadis are more vulnerable, although the Taliban even attack mosques, Sufi shrines, Shia processions and Imambarghas,” said a Christian activist belonging to Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) in Peshawar. On November 19, unidentified men shot dead a police officer deployed at a church in the Swat Gate area of Peshawar. “Christians are regularly raising concerns over the deteriorating security offered to churches,” Junaid Saqib said.

The Taliban statement after the September 22 attack in Peshawar indicates that the extremists see Pakistani Christians as representatives of the West. William Sadiq, a Karachi-based activist who heads Action Committee for Human Rights, believes that the attacks have increased after the US arrival in Afghanistan. “Most people consider the Christians here to represent the West and US. We have the same religion as them but we have nothing to do with the US wars in Afghanistan and Iraq,” he said.

On  21st September 2012, when the government had declared  a national holiday and a ‘Day of Love for the Prophet (PBUH)’,  an enraged mob torched Sarhadi Lutheran Church in Mardan in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa as thousands took to the street across the province against an anti-Islam film made in the US. “They set ablaze the church, the main service room and the library, and desecrated the holy books,” said Murad Mushtaq, a priest at the church.

The spray painted wall of the Mardan Church that was torched by a mob last year

Civil society and minority rights organizations are also concerned about the rise in blasphemy allegations and call it a reflection of a dangerous ascent of extremisms and anti-West sentiment. Christians are easy targets for false claims by accusers with other motives, said Michael Javed, a prominent minority leader and a former member of Sindh Assembly.

Many Christians have been convicted under the controversial blasphemy law.  Late Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer and late federal minister Shahbaz Bhatti were shot dead by extremists after they voiced support for a Christian woman convicted of blasphemy. Taseer was shot dead by his own police guard for opposing the blasphemy law.

Christians in Pakistan often have the lowest social status and hold the lowest paid and stigmatized jobs.  According to studies, representation of Christians in the occupation of cleaning and sweeping is extremely high.

Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Chief Minister Parvez Khattak issued a statement in July that “only non-Muslims will be recruited as sweepers”.  Junaid Saqib said his community saw the statement as derogatory and discriminating. A government job advertisement published in a Lahore-based Urdu daily in February 2010 stated that applicants for the sweeper’s job “must be Christian”.

Victor John’s son – a sanitary worker by profession – also died in the Peshawar Church attack. He said he was struggling to get his other son, who is educated, into some other profession, but it seems impossible. “Our family is associated with this occupation, and my sons and grandsons will be do same thing in the future, it seems.”

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