The coffins of Pakistani Christians victims killed in a suicide bomb attack on two Churches in Lahore, Pakistan, last Sunday. (Rahat Dar/EPA)

Pamela Constable, a staff writer and former South Asia bureau chief for The Washington Post, has reported periodically from Pakistan since 1998. She is the author of “Playing With Fire: Pakistan at War With Itself.”

The smell of burned cloth, wood and plastic lingered in the silent ruins eight months after a mob torched the row of modest homes. Nothing had been removed. Leaders of the small Christian community in Gojra, a district near Lahore, Pakistan, had preserved what they could as a shrine to their victimhood. In one abandoned home, a charred birdcage still hung in the kitchen; in another, a blackened Bible lay open on a table.

Muslims and Christians had lived together, though on separate blocks, in this working-class neighborhood for generations. But the comity vanished in a matter of hours after a rumor spread that someone at a Christian wedding had torn up a copy of the Koran. Muslims surged into the streets, furious at the supposed blasphemers. By the next morning, numerous houses had been gutted and seven people had been burned alive.

The survivors I met spoke of loss and betrayal. “We never saw such hatred until this happened,” a parish priest told me. Another community leader, whose family had lived there, among Muslims, since before the creation of Pakistan in 1947, said: “Now these groups call us American dogs and Israeli agents and infidels. The extremist groups put down roots, and now they feel power.”

Still, I didn’t hear any talk of vengeance after that 2009 attack. For years, Pakistan’s beleaguered Christians, estimated to number between 2 and 3 million, responded to such assaults by turning the other cheek. Their leaders urged them to abjure violence, and their social marginalization left them with few weapons other than faith.

Last Sunday, that dam of self-restraint finally burst. After suicide bombers linked to the Pakistani Taliban attacked two churches in Lahore, Pakistan’s cultural capital, leaving 14 worshipers dead and at least 70 injured, 4,000 angry Christians amassed in protest, chasing suspects and lynching two of them in broad daylight. Turning the other cheek was replaced by taking an eye for an eye.

For the forces of sectarian hate that have long sought to ignite religious conflict in the vast, diverse country of 180 million, this tragic turn of events was a victory. Pakistan is already embroiled in a conflict between majority Sunni and minority Shiite Muslims, both of which have violent militant wings and masses of easily roused devotees. If Christians join the volatile mix, Pakistan could lose its last bulwark against religious war.

Katrina Lantos Swett, who chairs the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, met with several Pakistani Christian groups this past week and said they expressed both “tremendous frustration” at the lack of government protection and deep skepticism at a recent pledge by Pakistani authorities to implement a “national action plan” to fight domestic Islamist terrorists. “They told us the police are pathetic. They do nothing, and they are complicit in the violence we suffer,” Swett told me Thursday.

While ominous, it’s hardly surprising that the long-suppressed anger and frustration of Pakistan’s Christians have spilled over. Christians have been the targets of seemingly endless attacks — some spontaneous, others, like the one in Lahore, deliberately planned to terrorize. Equally disturbing is the growth of popular support among Pakistani Muslims for such violence in the name of defending Islam.

Two years after the Gojra riots, a Christian peasant woman was accused of blaspheming during an argument in a berry patch, then thrown in prison and swiftly condemned to death. After the governor of Punjab province, Salman Taseer, spoke out in her defense, he was assassinated by one of his own bodyguards. Taseer’s murderer, who proudly confessed, was hailed as a hero of Islam by some Muslim groups, and throngs of well-wishers sought out his house. In 2013, in the most deadly anti-Christian attack to date, suicide bombers destroyed a church in the northwestern city of Peshawar, killing more than 80 people. Islamist figures and groups trying to whip up a domestic jihad continue to fan the hostility.

The violent demonization of this religious minority is especially tragic and bewildering, given the long history of Christian contributions to Pakistani society and public good. Roman Catholic missionaries began arriving from Europe in the early 1600s, and the Anglican Church was established in Lahore in 1877, when Pakistan was still part of India during British colonial rule. Both denominations founded many of the region’s finest schools and colleges, including LaSalle and Sacred Heart high schools and Forman Christian College in Lahore. For generations, many members of the Pakistani Muslim elite — judges, legislators, bureaucrats, even generals — were educated at these institutions.

This peaceful coexistence continued well after the partition of India in 1947 and the creation of Pakistan as an Islamic nation, one whose early leaders were strongly committed to democratic and religious freedoms. Christian-Muslim relations did not begin to fray until the 1980s and 1990s, when the Afghan war against the Soviet Union; the rule of a religiously fanatical military dictator, Gen. Mohammed Zia ul-Haq; and the importation of fundamentalist Sunni teachings from the Middle East began to challenge Pakistan’s tolerant traditions.

Tensions intensified after the 9/11 attacks in the United States, which many Pakistani Muslims saw as a foreign plot to defame their faith, and after Pakistan’s military president agreed to cooperate in the newly declared war on terror. Six months later, the Protestant International Church in Islamabad, which I had attended periodically for several years while working as a foreign correspondent for The Washington Post, was attacked by gunmen during a Sunday worship service, killing five people and wounding 45.

The rise of radical Sunni Islam, through political parties as well as religious groups, has also increased the social and political marginalization of Pakistan’s Christians. Islamists condemn them for allowing the consumption of alcohol and for supposedly being agents of a Western conspiracy against Islam. Many poor Christians are converts from Hinduism; viewed as lower-caste, they are generally relegated to religious slums called “colonies” and to menial or informal occupations such as salvaging scrap metal.

Another byproduct of Pakistan’s accelerating Islamization is the widespread abuse of its blasphemy law, especially against Christians and Ahmadis, a minority Muslim sect that is widely ostracized and not legally recognized. Under the law, one of the most punitive in the world, it is a capital offense to say anything derogatory about Islam or the prophet Muhammad, to “defile” the Koran, or to do anything that “outrages” Muslim sentiment.

Popular prejudice against Christians makes them easy targets for such accusations, even when they have been concocted for personal motives. Periodic legislative efforts to reform the blasphemy law have gone nowhere, and Pakistani officials tend to avoid the sensitive subject — for the same reason they tend to tolerate extremist Islamic groups, despite repeated pledges to crack down on them.

The cumulative effect of official pandering, social antipathy and violent persecution has been a rift within Christian groups, as some activists call for street protests while others, including influential Catholic leaders, continue to call for calm and prayer.

The question on the minds of many in Pakistan today is whether the anger unleashed last Sunday will dissipate and the community return to its long-suffering passivity, or whether a threshold has been crossed and a door opened to the kind of sectarian bloodletting that the true enemies of Pakistani Christians and Muslims alike — the country’s homegrown jihadist militants — have long worked to foment.

“The suicide attacks . . . could have been just another gruesome incident in the long list of horrors,” Pakistan’s most respected newspaper, Dawn, said in an editorial Monday. But the unprecedented retaliation by Christians, it warned, was a sign that Pakistan’s religious minorities are under an “intolerable strain” and that “the state’s halting response to the terrorism threat is leading to dangerous ruptures in society.”

pamela.constable@washpost.com

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