RESPONSIBILITY for the suicide bombing at a park in the city of Lahore on Easter Day has bee claimed by a Pakistani Taliban faction, Jamaat-ur-Ahrar.
“The target was Christians,” a spokesman, Ehsanullah Ehsan, said. “We want to send this message to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, that we have entered Lahore.”
At least at least 72 people were killed, including 29 children, when an explosion, understood to have been the work of a single suicide-bomber, hit the main gate at Gulshan-e-Iqbal amusement park. The park was busier than usual, as Christians came to celebrate Easter with their families. More than 300 people were wounded.”
The news agency Al Jazeera reported that at least 14 victims had been identified as Christians, and that most victims were Muslims.
The Moderator of the Church of Pakistan, the Most Revd Samuel Azariah, visited the injured in hospital on Sunday.
“It is unfortunate that these inhuman terrorists identify themselves as Muslims, and by performing such barbaric acts damage the image of their faith community,” he wrote on Facebook on Monday. “In a context of this nature, it is the primary responsibility of our majority brothers and sisters from the Muslim community to identify, silence and eliminate this minority.
“This minority claims to be the real Muslims, and primarily acts against the teaching of Islam and this should be resolved.
“Mere statements of condemnation and quotes from The Holy Scriptures are not enough. We as a nation have reached a breaking point that ‘enough is enough.’ How many more soft targets have to be sacrificed?”
A hunt for those behind the attack is under way. A military spokesman, General Asim Bajwa, wrote via Twitter on Monday: “Number of suspect terrorists and facilitators arrested and huge cache of arms and ammunition recovered.”
On Tuesday, it was reported that 5000 people had been detained in a sweep by security forces who later released all but 216. Three days of mourning began on Monday.
In a televised address, the Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, vowed to root out terrorism: "We will not let them raise their heads again, we will not allow them to play the lives of the people of Pakistan. This is my resolve, this is my government's resolve and this is the resolve of the 200 million people of Pakistan."
Pope Francis condemned the “cowardly and senseless crime” in his address to pilgrims in St Peter’s Square, on Monday.”I appeal to the civil authorities, and to all the social components of [Pakistan] to do everything possible to restore security and peace to the population, and, in particular, to the most vulnerable religious minorities.”
On Sunday, the Archbishop of Canterbury wrote on Twitter: “We pray for the victims of Lahore to the crucified God who brings hope in despair, whose love is with the victims, who promises justice.”
Writing for the Financial Times on Friday, Archbishop Welby said that political and religious leaders must "move beyond condemnation to something better.
While governments had a role to play in upholding the right to freedom of religion and belief, religious leaders must "up their game". They must "hold each other to account, as well as be held to account, for how we treat them [minorities], particularly those within our own religious or ethnic groups".
He went on: "This requires honest and robust relationships between religious leaders, not platitudes, however well-intentioned. Such relationships involve encouraging each other actively to protect minorities and to challenge those who seek to exploit differences."
“The federal and provincial governments have to assert their authority to work jointly on a strategy to protect religious minorities, and to stop the brutal violence committed by terrorists,” Michelle Chaudhry, from the Cecil and Iris Chaudhry Foundation, a partner of Christian Solidarity Worldwide, said. “We demand that the government brings the perpetrators to justice, and ends the culture of impunity”.
Days before Easter, another Christian charity, Release, urged supporters to pray for the protection of Pakistan’s Christians, and those who support them. One Pakistani Christian leader quoted by the charity had said that Christian communities were “on high alert” and were “concerned for our Easter services”.
“The anger of extremists is boiling over towards Christian communities across the country,” he said. “The situation is tense and alarming for Christian and Muslim leaders who speak up for Christians.”
Wilson Chowdhry, who chairs the British Pakistani Christian Association (BPCA), said that “unless Western governments wake up to this problem, the death toll for Christians living there is set to rise exponentially.”
BPCA believes that the park was targeted because the security at churches has become much tighter since previous attacks.
In 2013, more than 80 people were killed in a bombing at All Saints’, Peshawar (News, 20 September, 2013) and it is just over a year since suicide bombings at two churches in Youhanabad, a Christian neighbourhood of Lahore, left at least 16 people dead (News, 13 March 2015). A 16-year-old who died in Sunday’s attack, Wasif Masih, had narrowly escaped the Youhanabad bombings.
“Terrorists didn’t used to be so focused on our community,” the Vicar of Christ Church, the Church of Pakistan church in Youhanabad bombed last year, told Reuters this week. “Now all their attention is on us. Perhaps it’s time for the government to turn their attention toward us also. These people are roaming around freely, and no one is stopping them.”
A spokesman for the Punjab government, Zaeem Qadri, said that Christians were “as safe as any other Pakistani is”.
The Bishop of Lahore, the Rt Revd Irfan Jamil, told Reuters that the government was trying its best.
“There are people who live to live, and there are people who live to die,” he said. “How much protection is enough protection against such people? There is always room for improvement. Many of us don’t feel that we are secure.”
He described to the Anglican Communion News Service how he and other Bishops had visited the wounded victims in hospitals, to pray, encourage, and console. They had made no distinction between religions, he said.
“We are going as people, because Muslims, Christians – it is Pakistanis who have lost their lives and our concern at the moment is in being with them. . . It is a loss of life of people – that’s how I feel it – it is human beings who have lost their lives.”
He asked for prayer for the Bishops, including for “wisdom in how we say things" when speaking to the media.
On Wednesday, Shunila Ruth, a Christian member of Punjab's Provincial Assembly (News, 27 June, 2014), said that more than 30 Christians had died in the attack, and that many were missing. She spoke after a meeting of church leaders "to discuss the situations of Christians living in Pakistan, as we feel that this incident is connected with many other incidents that Christians have suffered in Pakistan".
She went on: "It is high time that we address them as a United Church in Pakistan. We believe that the Pakistan church is a suffering church, persecuted on every front, but strong in their faith and belief in Jesus Christ. We request the international community to continue to remember us in your prayers."
In Islamabad on Sunday, police clashed with people protesting against the execution last month of Mumtaz Qadri (News, 4 March). Qadri was executed last month after being convicted of assassinating Salman Taseer, the former Governor of Punjab (News, 7 January 2011), who had defended a Christian woman accused of blasphemy.
The diocese of Lahore has been linked with the diocese of Manchester for more than 30 years. On Tuesday, the Bishop of Bolton, the Rt Revd Chris Edmondson, said that the attacks had left him “appalled and deeply saddened. . . We continue to pray especially for the bereaved, injured, and traumatised, and urge the government of Pakistan to take every step possible to make real their constitution’s commitment to protect the rights of all the minority religious groups.”
A prayer vigil for Lahore will be held in Manchester Cathedral on Saturday from 12 to 2 p.m., to which all are welcome.