[Minority Concern] Christian leaders are demanding protection after the suicide attack on Easter Day in Lahore, Pakistan. According to the latest reports, at least 74 people, both Christians and Muslims, were killed, including 29 children. More than 370 people were injured in the blast on March 27, at Gulshan Iqbal Park in Lahore. Lahore is the capital of Punjab province and the second-largest city of Pakistan. Christians make up only 5 percent of the 80 million population of the city. On the other hand, the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) said in a statement on April 6 that coordinated paramilitary operations against terrorists had been launched in Southern Punjab, which is assisted by Pakistani army.
At the time of the blast, about 3,000 people were visiting the park, where some Christian families were celebrating Easter, following the prayer services. Many wounded people are still in hospitals, and some are still in critical condition. It is estimated that about 32 Christians, mostly young children, from Nishtar Colony, Youhanabad, Bahar Colony, Khaliqnagar and Awan Market of Lahore have died in this Islamist suicide bombing strike. On Sunday, April 4, the whole Pakistani nation remembered the victims of Lahore Carnage. Churches throughout Pakistan organised special prayer services while throughout the day, Muslim families visited their love ones’ graves in Lahore.
Along with the Pakistani nation, the international community also condemned the devastated incident. Pope Francis called it bloodied and hideous attack and demanded protection of the country’s religious minorities, especially Christians, who were the main target of the attack.
Jamat-ul-Ahrar, a splinter group of the Pakistani Taliban, who has a close association with the Islamic State, claimed responsibility for this deadly attack. Ehsanullah Ehsan, a spokesman of the group said, “We claim responsibility for the attack on Christians as they were celebrating Easter.” Later, the group released the picture of the suicide attacker, identified as Salahuddin Khurasani. Jamaat-ul-Ahrar was based in the Mohmand agency of the tribal areas, led by Umar Khalid Khurasani. In March last year, the same terrorist group attacked two churches in Lahore. Lahore is the capital of Pakistan’s largest Punjab province and is the Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s hometown. The attackers’ main target was Pakistan’s poor Christian community. It was also a message to the government that these blood-thirsty groups are still capable of striking whenever and wherever they want, despite a yearlong military operation against terrorists in the northern part of the country. Though, the Taliban confessed that they were responsible for the attack, ironically, their apologists, are once again, promoting the same conspiracy theories to mislead the nation. Sadly, many people believe these theories, which is dividing the nation and strengthening the terrorists’ narrative. Islamists say that these attacks are conspiracy of the international forces against the Islamic groups.
On the Easter Day, a suicide bomber blew himself up at the exit gate of the park at around 6.35 p.m. when children were playing on swings, and families were enjoying other recreational activities in the park. According to eyewitnesses, there were no proper security arrangements in and around the playground, which made it easy for the suicide bomber to enter the park without much difficulty and blow himself in the crowded area.
Immediately after the blast, Christian leaders asked the community to be peaceful and called for unity and brotherhood. They said terrorists want to destroy our unity, but we have to stay together to defeat them. People immediately rushed to the playground to help the victims, and many young people gathered outside the hospitals to donate blood for the wounded. Christians, Muslims, Hindus and Sikh, all showed solidarity through peaceful protests against the terrorists and organised peace vigils for the victims. Church leaders visited both the Christians and Muslims injured people in Sheikh Zaid and Jinnah Hospitals in Lahore, and prayed for them. They also prayed for the medical staff who worked tirelessly to save as many people as they could under the constant pressure.
The Punjab government announced three days of mourning in memory of the victims, and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif chaired a special meeting after the blast to review the security situation in the country. As the provincial government was not yet ready to go after the militants, General Raheel Sharif immediately gave orders to the army to start an operation against militants in the province. “Since the 1980s, many of Pakistan’s extremist groups have been sponsored and trained by the army’s intelligence services to fight for control of Indian Kashmir or, on occasion, to attack other Indian targets. Such support from the military has now mostly ended. But the real test of General Sharif’s determination to root out terrorism from Pakistan has always been in Punjab,” Ahmed Rashid, a renowned Pakistani journalist, wrote in the New York Books on 31 March. In the operation, the authorities arrested over 300 suspected militants from the various areas of the province.
Pakistan has been suffering from terrorism since 2001, but the Pakistani authorities largely ignored the activities of these militant groups. Until now, at least 60,000 people have lost their lives at the hands of these terrorists. It is a familiar pattern that after every major attack, the government pledges to fight terrorism and ensures the nation that the security risks are at the lowest level during that time. Despite the government’s claims, the Sunday attack exposed the weak security situation in the country.
— Aftab Alexander Mughal is the editor of the Minority Concern of Pakistan magazine and former National Executive Secretary of the Justice and Peace Commission of Pakistan.