The scenes in the eroded and muddy streets of Youhanabad were all grim a day after the tragic incident. The violent reaction after the deadly blasts at the gates of two churches had led to mob-lynching of two alleged suspects and then spread to the entire city and the country.
When the worshippers were about to leave the halls after the Sunday Service at 11am in the two main churches of the locality — Saint John’s Catholic Church and St John’s Christ Church not far from each other —two suicide bombers exploded themselves at the gates after forcibly trying to enter the compounds and attempting to disperse the security men through random pistol shots.
At least 24 people lost their lives in this tragic incident including 17 victims of two church blasts; the protesting mob killed two, three died in car smashing during the protest and road block other than the suicide bombers themselves.
Jamaatul Ahrar, a splinter group of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), claimed responsibility for the church attacks saying it was “in response to operations by the security forces.” Following the Army Public School attack in Peshawar, the state had announced a full-fledged operation against terrorism.
“The claim of the splinter groups seems credible. Also, we have to keep in mind that a few days ago three different TTP groups have formed an alliance including Jamaatul Ahrar, Fazlullah, and Lashkar-e-Islam,” says Rahimullah Yusufzai, senior journalist and analyst. “Though, the attack is claimed by one group, there are chances that there would be more to show the strength of the alliance against the state.”
By attacking APS Peshawar, terrorists embarrassed Pakistan Army and similarly hitting churches in Punjab they have successfully embarrassed the ruling PML-N whose Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif claims he is fully implementing the National Action Plan against militancy, says Yusufzai.
“The militants, because of their weakness, are hitting soft targets like churches and Imambargahs mostly these days. Though the loss is deemed less as per their wishes, they do succeed in creating an impact of fear and tension in the society. The state, unfortunately, is not capable of securing each and every possible soft target. This situation can continue for years,” he says.
Youhanabad is a more-than-50-year-old predominantly Christian neighbourhood in suburban Lahore with around 200,000 inhabitants which has gradually spread to adjacent localities. According to Azhar Pitras, a former local elected councillor of the locality, the number of registered Christian voters is more than 60,000 in official electoral rolls. There are many schools and churches in the locality. There are no less than a 100 small and big churches of different denominations. The neighbourhood celebrates “Jashan-e-Baba Youhanabad” in November every year to celebrate the founder of the locality Father Hennery, a Catholic missionary who laid the foundation of Youhanabad in 1963.
In Pakistan, religious minorities including Christians, Shias and Ahmadis are under constant attacks by the militants. More than 80 per cent of Christians live in the most populated province of Punjab. Continuing attacks on churches for the past one decade, with no justice meted out to the culprits, have gradually brought the community to this violent stage.
The violent mob, mainly comprising youth, urgently gathered at the spot after the blasts, while the police contingents reached much later. Police nabbed two young boys at the spot as “suspects” and put them in the van while angry mob, thinking them as (alleged) facilitators of the attackers; dragged them from police custody; badly beat them; and later, according to locals, barbarically burned them. This all happened in the presence of police squads who had managed to reach the spot.
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Resentment against the terrorist attacks was unusual this time. On Monday, the streets of Youhanabad were full of Christians from different areas of the city to mourn and protests against this brutality. They were carrying banners, placards and chanting slogans “Stop killing Christians”, “Let us live”, “Down with terrorism” and “Salute to martyrs. “State is not protecting our Churches. We are at the mercy of terrorists and this is too much now,” an impatient Pervez Masih, who works as cleaner in government department, says with a long baton in his hand. “This is not the issue of Christians but of Pakistan. And we have to understand it.”
Two days later, the Christians buried their victims in a curfew-like situation following a tremendous pressure from the government for not holding further violent protests. Punjab’s official machinery, apparently, forced the community to bury the victims quickly. Even, their graves were dug in Youhanabad graveyard in the presence of state machinery and dead bodies were taken from the ground, where funerals were held, on official ambulances in the presence of top government authorities.
The community was not allowed full religious freedom to bury the victims, locals observed.
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Asiya Nasir, a Christian MNA from Jamiat Ulema Islam (Fazl) talks about the reaction of the society: “It is for the first time in the history that the Christians resorted to violence. Unfortunately the reason seems to be their lack of faith in the state; they have lost their patience after not getting security and justice in the past incidents.”
She says there had been incidents of terrorism and lynching and burning alive in Gojra, Kot Radha Kishan and many other such places but state denied them justice. This mob mentality is not new in Pakistan and it should not be linked to religion. She asserts that this issue should be taken as mob violence rather than encouraging religious hype. “It is the issue of social fabric not any religion.”
She maintains that churches in Pakistan are not well-protected and even in this case, till now, no government official has visited the aggrieved families or inquired after the injured ones and this is how this marginalised community gets a sense of injustice, oppression and discrimination. “The responsibility of the whole incident and its backlash lies on the government, both provincial and federal.”
Political analyst Hassan Askari Rizvi says the state often acts late or plays the role of a firefighter after such incidents, sadly. “It lacks the capacity to prevent such conflicts. When there are entrenched extremist groups in society, they would definitely try to take advantage of the situation.”
He suggests the short term strategy should have been to control the mob immediately and diffuse the intensity of violence in which the government failed. For a long term strategy “the state needs to evolve mechanisms and build capacity for social conflict management to control increasing uncertainty and confusion that strengthens extremist religious groups of any type”.
A day earlier, on television channels, one of the ministers had stated that the Punjab government itself was lenient on protestors because “they were the aggrieved party and should be allowed to ease their anger (through protests)”.