By Zia Ur Rehman

March 18, 2015

Munawar Chouhan, a retired military officer and a Christian by faith, has been thinking of training his community’s youth to safeguard their churches.

After the suicide attack on the All Saints Church in Peshawar in September 2013 that killed 80 worshippers and injured around 130 others, Chouhan had written letters to several Church leaders in Karachi asking them to send community youth, both male and female, for self-defence and security courses.

Only one church in Akhtar Colony had expressed interest at the time but now, after the twin bombings at two churches in Lahore on March 15, he is writing again to Church leaders to offer free self-defense courses.

The attack on the Youhanabad churches that killed 17 worshippers and injured dozens others has compelled the community across the country to think about organising and training their own security volunteers to prevent terrorist acts and protect their worship places.

Reverend Haroon Younas of the Holy Trinity Cathedral in Saddar said the community had been feeling insecure after the Lahore and Peshawar attacks. “The perception that the State is incapable of providing security to Christians is growing and they are fast losing confidence in the police,” he told The News.

Although there are no official statistics available, Christian leaders and political activists believe that there are over 2,000 churches of different denominations in the city.

Many churches have now started working to form their own community-based security force. “As our religious festivals – Palm Sunday, Good Friday and Easter – are fast approaching, some churches have already started issuing identity cards and car stickers to community members as part of increased security measures,” said Younas.

“However, it will be difficult for us to adopt such measures.”

Rana Qaiser, the chairman of All Pakistan Mashihee Tehreek, said volunteer security guards at the churches in Lahore acted bravely and prevented more casualties.

“We demand that the government should issue us licensed weapons and train our community volunteers so that we can save our worship places on our own,” he added.

Chouhan said he would train the volunteers to detect guns and bombs, identify suspicious people and spot unclaimed bags and other potentially dangerous objects.

 A tried and tested approach

Security researchers and religious leaders said a community using their own security volunteers for protecting their worship places was not a new concept.

Initially, the Ahmadiyya community had started relying on its own security to protect its worship places.

Over the past five years or so, even the Shia community has formed its own security squads.

“We see a more thorough approach to this volunteer security networks among these communities because of the attacks on them,” Rabia Mehmood, an Islamabad-based researcher told The News.

And the government encourages this trend. “Policemen deputed outside worship places don’t have any knowledge about the communities and it is difficult for them to verify who is an outsider,” said a senior police officer in Korangi requesting anonymity.

“We also ask the religious communities to depute some of their community members who can help us verify people.”

Minority leaders also complain that the Sindh government had failed to adhere to the five percent job quote for non-Muslims in the police department.

“Policemen from the same community can perform a good job in safeguarding the worship places of their faith, but sadly, the policy of five percent quota has not been implemented in the past four years,” said Sanjesh S Dhanja, the president of Pakistan Hindu Seva, a non-governmental organisation.

A report submitted by the Sindh government to the Supreme Court in January this year also corroborated this fact. However, the provincial government defended itself saying that non-Muslim communities were not interested in police jobs.

Mehmood said volunteer security was now a standard practice at the congregations of religious minorities because of the lack of trust the communities had in the State security apparatus.