By Zia Ur Rehman

January 6, 2014

PESHAWAR – Still feeling the pain from a September suicide bombing of the All Saints Church in Peshawar, Pakistan’s Christian community observed Christmas in a sombre fashion.

“Churches across the country decided to celebrate Christmas this year with simplicity,” said Zia Pervez Mirza, an All Saints Church priest who was leading a service when the bombing occurred.

Worshippers usually adorn the church with colourful bunting, flowers and balloons at Christmas, but this year the white walls of the 130-year-old church were covered instead with posters carrying pictures of victims of the bombing that shocked the entire country.

“We used to celebrate Christmas with great fervour and fun, decorating the church with flowers and lights, wearing new clothes and exchanging gifts,” Tanveer Shirazi, who chairs a committee to help survivors and the victims’ families, said.

Worshippers enter the All Saints Church in Peshawar December 1. A September suicide attack at the church killed more than 80 people and injured around 130 others. Muslim scholars have condemned such attacks on places of worship. [Zia Ur Rehman]
“But this time, we are celebrating with pictures of our loved ones who were killed.”

The attack killed more than 80 worshippers and injured about 130 others, Shirazi said, noting that the dead included 34 women, seven children and two Muslim policemen who were guarding the church.

Such attacks have drawn widespread condemnation.

“The Taliban’s view that attacks on churches are in line with the principles of Islam is totally wrong and against the teaching of Islam,” leading clerics – including Jamia Naeemia head Maulana Raghib Hussain Naeemi and Pakistan Sunni Tehreek head Sarwat Ijaz Qadri – said in an October 5 joint statement.

Taliban target worship places : 

The Taliban have attacked dozens of Pakistani worship places in the past 10 years, killing more than 1,500 worshippers and injuring about 3,000, security analyst Muhammad Nafees said. The defiled holy places include mosques, churches, Sufi shrines, Muslim processions, imambargahs, Ahmadi worship centres and missionary schools, he added.

The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and its affiliate groups claimed responsibility in almost all cases, with Jundul Hifsa saying it carried out the All Saints attack, media reported.

In another incident, a mob burned the Sarhadi Lutheran Church in Mardan September 21, 2012.

Workers November 30 continue reconstructing the Sarhadi Lutheran Church in Mardan, Pakistan, which a mob set fire to September 21, 2012. [Zia Ur Rehman]
“They set fire to the church, sanctuary and library and desecrated the holy books,” Murad Mushtaq, a pastor at the church, said of the attackers.

However, Christian leaders announced that they forgave the perpetrators to promote religious harmony, he said, and a Rs. 34.4m (US $326,000) reconstruction of the church is nearing completion.

Islamic scholars have urged the government to strike against the militants who inflicted irreparable harm to Islam and Pakistan, saying that the Taliban and their kind deserve no mercy.

After the All Saint Attack – Unity : 

While the militants are using such attacks to disrupt inter-faith unity, they have badly failed, Christian leaders said, citing instead the coming together of communities after religious bombings.

“Hundreds of Muslims helped move the bodies to hospitals after the attack and provided clothes to the injured,” Mirza told Central Asia Online.

In what Shirazi called “a welcome development for Christians,” the government, Islamic leaders and individuals unanimously denounced the Taliban and showed solidarity with the Christian community after the All Saints bombing.

The number of churchgoers also increased after the attack, showing that people are not afraid of the Taliban, he said.

Christian leaders have expressed satisfaction that police personnel are working alongside church members to protect churches, Mirza said.

Security around churches in Pakistan has increased. At All Saints Church, for example, police officers search every newcomer and workers have installed biometrics-enabled security gates that read thumbprints.

Training media to promote inter-faith harmony : 

Meanwhile, media development organisations are training journalists how to report on sensitive issues, especially regarding religious minorities.

“Because of growing commercialism and not having proper training, the media have not played their role in promoting inter-faith harmony and non-Muslims’ rights in Pakistan properly,” said Kashif Baloch, an officials with the Lahore-based NGO Punjab Lok Sujag (PLS).

PLS organised a media exposure trip in late November, where more than 20 journalists from across the country visited Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) churches that had been attacked and met with leaders of the minority religions and relatives of those killed.

The main message was that issues of faith are sensitive and should be handled with care, Karachi-based journalist Ammar Shahbazi said after the PLS training session.