At least 72 people died in a suicide bombing in a crowded park in Lahore, Pakistan, on Sunday. A splinter faction of the Pakistani Taliban, Jamaat ul-Ahrar, has claimed responsibility for the attack, which the group says was directed at Pakistani Christians who were celebrating Easter Sunday in Gulshan-e-Iqbal Park.
“It was our people who attacked the Christians in Lahore, celebrating Easter,” Ehsanullah Ehsan, a spokesman for the Taliban group, said. “It’s our message to the government that we will carry out such attacks again until sharia [Islamic law] is imposed in the country.”
The bombing, which took place just by an area of the park designated for women and children, is the latest attack in recent years that has targeted the small yet important Christian community in the majority Muslim nation.
Who are Pakistan’s Christians?
Pakistan is a country of 190 million people, the vast majority of whom are Muslims. Christians make up about 1.5 percent of the total population, according to the latest census, although some Christians argue that the government undercounts their numbers, which they claim should be closer to 5 percent. Lahore, a city in the eastern province of Punjab, is one of a number of centers for the community in the country.
Christians have a long history in the region; Roman Catholic missionaries first arrived from Europe in the late 1600s. Most of Pakistan’s Christians are the descendants of Hindus who converted during the years of British rule. Often they were from a low caste, and many have remained on the poorer edges of Pakistani society.
However, the Christian minority has also contributed greatly to Pakistani society. Many of the best schools and colleges in Pakistan were established by Christians and attended by the country’s Muslim elite, and Christians have been among the most decorated and celebrated members of Pakistan’s military since independence.
A growing rift
Before partition, Pakistan was a more multi-ethnic place, and many Christians supported the creation of a Muslim-majority Pakistan. During the mass migration of people after 1947 and the split with Bangladesh in 1971, many non-Muslims, Hindus in particular, left the state. However, for decades there were relatively good relations between the Muslim community and the Christian minority.
Pamela Constable, a former Washington Post correspondent in Pakistan, says that it was only in the 1980s and 1990s that tensions began to fester. Writing last year, Constable identified among catalysts for the change the Soviet war in Afghanistan, the rise of military dictator Gen. Mohammed Zia ul-Haq, and the influence of stricter religious teachings coming from the Arab states of the Persian Gulf. Things grew worse after 2001 with the American response to the 9/11 attacks, “which many Pakistani Muslims saw as a foreign plot to defame their faith,” Constable wrote.
Although most Christians and Muslims still coexist without incident, there has been a growing sense of concern among Pakistan’s Christian community, with many deciding to emigrate. In particular, many activists say Pakistan’s strict blasphemy law — which forbids any derogatory reference to the Islamic prophet Muhammad and makes the crime punishable by death — is being abused to target religious minorities, including Christians.
A broader problem for Pakistan
A number of prominent political figures have been assassinated for opposing the blasphemy law, including Shahbaz Bhatti, the country’s only Christian cabinet member, who was shot to death by gunmen in Islamabad in March 2011.
A series of high-profile terrorist attacks have targeted Christians in recent years. In 2013, a suicide bombing at a church in Peshawar left more than 100 people dead, and a series of attacks on churches in Lahore left 14 dead. These attacks were attributed to the Pakistani Taliban or groups linked to it. Analysts suspect that attacks on religious minorities, including Shiite Muslims and the Ahmadi Muslim sect, are aimed at destabilizing Pakistan as a whole.
The attack in Gulshan-e-Iqbal Park is a broader problem for all Pakistanis — in fact, despite the stated intent of the perpetrators, early signs suggest that many of the victims were Muslims. The attack also coincided with the deadline set by an alliance of religious groups for Punjab province to withdraw a controversial law that sought to protect women from violence and abuse. That law was passed unanimously by Punjab’s parliament in February.
The government of Punjab province has declared three days of mourning in response to Sunday’s attacks. “Those who targeted innocent citizens do not deserve to be called humans,” Shahbaz Sharif, Punjab’s chief minister, posted on his Twitter account. “We will hunt you down.”