A human chain in front of St Anthony's Church in Lahore on October 6. Photo courtesy of Mohammad Jibran Nasir.
For the past two Sundays, hundreds of Pakistanis of all faiths have formed human chains in front of churches during mass – first in Karachi, then in Lahore. This solidarity movement was launched in reaction to the terrorist attack that killed 81 worshippers at a church in Peshawar, making it the deadliest ever perpetrated against the country’s Christian minority.
Militant groups linked to the Pakistani Taliban said they carried out the September 22 bomb attack in response to US-led drone strikes. Christians have been targeted for their faith before, but previous attacks have usually taken the form of mob violence linked to blasphemy cases.
However, suicide bombings are quite frequent in Pakistan. Shia Muslims, who are also a minority, have been repeatedly targeted this year. Terrorist activity on the whole is steadily rising, with watchdog group South Asia Terrorism Portal reporting that more than 2,500 civilians have been killed so far this year, indicating that it is on course to surpass last year’s numbers and become the worst year on record.
Christians represent 1.6 percent of the country’s overwhelmingly Muslim population. It is the second largest minority group after Hindus.
Demonstrators formed a human chain in front of St Anthony's Church in Lahore on October 6.
“When our Christian brothers or sisters are in church, they shouldn’t have to be worrying about their security”
Mohammad Jibran Nasir is a lawyer in Karachi and a member of the newly-formed collective Pakistan For All, which organised the human chains. He is a Sunni Muslim.
We were inspired to do this after seeing Muslims form human chains to protect Coptic Christians in Egypt, when they were being attacked. We wanted to allow our Christian brothers and sisters here in Pakistan to have a moment of peace in church, when they are trying to connect with God and shouldn’t have to be worrying about their security. And of course, we also wanted to send a message to the Taliban and to the Pakistani government. To the Taliban: We disagree with you; to the government: If you don’t take effective measures to protect houses of God, we’ll have to do it ourselves.Of course, participants were afraid for their security too, but the whole point was to show that we were ready to take a risk that should be taken by the security forces. They should take whatever measures are necessary to protect all holy houses. During both events, there were many Muslims among us, but also Hindus and atheists. When the mass ended, the Christian worshippers came and joined us. We then had Muslims scholars, both Sunni and Shia, make speeches condemning the Peshawar attack.While our movement is secular, it was important for us to include Muslim scholars as a way to get the attention of the public on this issue. The Pakistani Taliban have said that the Peshawar church attack is perfectly in line with sharia law. So we wanted to hear from scholars to give an authoritative view of what Islam truly is.Our movement has caught the attention of a large group of scholars called the Pakistan Ulema Council. They have called us and declared full support; in fact, they’re sending us a delegation to join us for our next human chain, in Islamabad this Sunday. [The collective is also planning a fourth human chain in Peshawar]. They’ve also asked their members all over the country, even in tribal areas, to talk about minority rights in their prayers next Friday, which is Eid al-Adha [a major Muslim holiday]. This is a huge step!
Demonstrators in Lahore. Photo courtesy of Mahommad Jibran Nasir.
“Having people from other faiths support us was very encouraging”
Naumana Suleman is a human rights activist who works with the National Commission for Justice and Peace, a group working to defend religious minorities’ rights. She is Christian herself, and took part in the human chain in Lahore last Sunday.
I myself go to church in Lahore, and after the Peshawar bombing, our community was quite shaken. Still, the very next Sunday, the church was just as full. We wanted to reaffirm our resolve. And now, to have people from other faiths come and support us, this was very encouraging.I think it’s encouraging not just for us, but for all the minorities in Pakistan. It reminds us that there are enlightened minds in Pakistan, that most people do not want terrorism.The government needs to find a strategy that works to counter terrorism, and if that strategy is dialogue, be clear about what terms it will negotiate on. In the meantime, it also needs to make efforts to educate the population about minorities. For example, the government should revamp schools’ curriculum, so that religious minorities are no longer portrayed as Pakistan’s foes, and encourage people to stop using certain terms derogatory terms for Christians.
Post written with France 24 journalist Gaelle Faure (@gjfaure).