reportage Religion

Bearing The Cross

Pakistan’s Christians struggle to keep the faith

By SARAH ELEAZAR | 1 February 2018

THE RIDES AT LAHORE’S famous Gulshan-e-Iqbal Park open for business at around 5 pm. Hundreds of people mill around the sprawling 66-acre park all day, and the most enthusiastic of them—the children—wait for ride operators to take up their positions in small cabins, from where they run a giant Ferris wheel, merry-go-rounds and fancy swirling teacups. The park is open to people from all backgrounds, but on Easter Sunday of 2016, a particularly large number of the park’s estimated 30,000 visitors were Christians.

At around 6.25 pm, most of the visitors were packed into the fairground area near Gate 5, where dozens of children had queued in front of two popular rides. Just then, between the two rides and Gate 5, a suicide bomber detonated ten kilograms of explosives packed inside his vest. The blast killed at least 72 people, and although the attackers had announced that they were targeting the Christians celebrating Easter, most of the victims were Muslim.

The attack was claimed by Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, a splinter group of the militant organisation Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan. Jamaat-ul-Ahrar had also claimed the twin suicide bombings at churches in Lahore’s Youhanabad area the year before, which had killed over 20 people and sparked a violent protest in the locality that left two Muslim men dead. But there was no protest this time.

Instead, on the day of the blast, protests were being held in a different city for very different reasons. As ambulances raced, sirens screaming, through Lahore’s streets, trying to get the hundreds of injured to hospitals, around 20,000 agitators gathered in Islamabad and created a trail of destruction as they marched on the parliament with the express intent of burning it down. The demonstration marked the end of the mourning period for Mumtaz Qadri, who had been hanged for murdering Salman Taseer, a governor of Pakistan’s state of Punjab who had criticised the country’s blasphemy laws. They pitched camps and presented their list of demands, including the execution of Asia Bibi—a Christian woman accused of blasphemy, whom Taseer was killed for defending. The protesters torched a metro bus, ransacked a metro bus station, destroyed private vehicles parked on roads, breached the high-security Red Zone and surrounded the parliament before the army was called in.

Reeling from the attack on the park in Lahore, the Christian leadership’s only condemnations and consolations came mostly through either the government-approved channel of the Pakistan Ulema Council or through Facebook videos. I spoke to several of Lahore’s church leaders, who explained that they did not want to present themselves as potential targets anymore. They had strict directions from the government not to protest or hold public shows of grief or memorials for those deceased. “We were told that we would lose any guarantee of security from the state if we did,” one of the bishops told me.

FOR DECADES, the Christian minority of Pakistan has lived a marginalised existence. According to the theologian Duncan B Forrester’s book Forrester on Christian Ethics and Practical Theology, most Christians in Pakistan were formerly members of disadvantaged Hindu castes, and were converted by missionaries of the Catholic Church and the Church Mission Society. Today, many of them live in Christian-only villages and slums around Pakistan’s big cities, and hold jobs such as those of tenant farmers, sanitary workers and factory workers.

Over the last few years, the community has faced extreme violence at the hands of Islamic militants. A year before the attack on Gulshan-e-Iqbal Park, two blasts in Lahore churches killed at least 17 people. Before that, in September 2013, twin suicide bombers killed 127 people and injured more than 250 others when they attacked a church in Peshawar.

But sporadic violence is only one among a multitude of problems faced by the country’s Christians. They live in a religiously hostile environment, where intolerance is not harboured by extremists alone.

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Sarah Eleazar is a Lahore-based journalist.

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