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Pakistan Christians take to the streets after bombing

1:55 PM, Sep 23, 2013   |    comments
Pakistani Christians hold a burning tire as they stage a protest in Lahore on Sept. 23, 2013. (Photo: Arif Ali, AFP/Getty Images)
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NEW DEHLI - In the wake of the worst ever attack on Pakistan's Christian minority, some worry that the new government's strategy for peace through negotiations with extremist Taliban groups is doomed to failure before it even gets off the ground.

Critics worry that the government is only allowing the Islamists time to get stronger.

"The Tehrik-i-Taliban itself has been operating to make social, fiscal and political space for itself," said Ejaz Haider, national security analyst, at Capital TV based in Islamabad. "It has managed to survive and counterattack despite military operations. It knows that it can tire out the people and the government."

More than 85 people were killed at the All Saints Church in Peshawar in northwestern Pakistan on Sunday after a pair of suicide bombers targeted the Christian building, injuring hundreds of worshipers. A wing of the Tehrik-i-Taliban claimed it launched the attack.

Hundreds of Christians all over the country took to the streets. Protests broke out in other cities, including Karachi. The protesters attacked police as stores and markets were shut down. Christians are a minority in Pakistan, where roughly 96% of the country's 180 million people are Muslim.

In the southern port city of Karachi, a few hundred demonstrators chanted "Stop killing Christians!" and demanded that those who attacked their community be held accountable.

"We want an end to extremism, terrorism and barbarianism in Pakistan," said Bashir John, a priest.

Xavier William, president of Life For All Pakistan, a Christian group in Lahore, said the Pakistan government must act.

"This is not just an attack on a church ... this is not just about one community anymore. This is a national issue."

The bombing of the church was just the latest terror attack to set off a crisis in Pakistan over the Taliban.

In October, 15-year-old Malala Yousafzai was shot in the head by the Taliban because of her activism in promoting equal rights for women to education. She survived the attack after being flown to Britain for surgery.

Following the attack, the country erupted in an uproar, leading the military to crack down on Taliban and al-Qaeda extremists in Pakistan's semiautonomous tribal areas.

With Pakistan's new prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, taking office in June, many hoped there would be peace in the country - he vowed to bring to an end the decade-long war against terrorism. An all-party conference was also held on Sept. 9 to chalk out a comprehensive counterterrorism strategy and discuss negotiations with the Taliban.

However, despite the efforts at peace, there has been a surge in incidents of violence, particularly against religious minorities, including Shia and Ahmedi Muslims and Christians.

Earlier this year, a mob in Lahore burnt down two churches and more than a hundred Christian houses, and dozens of other attacks have taken place since June. Numbering 2.5 million of the country's 182 million population, Christians blame the government for failing to protect them.

The Tehrik-i-Taliban (TTP) has denied responsibility for the attacks despite the wing's claim, a claim analysts say is likely true.

"The current governments in Islamabad and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa want to talk to the TTP to reduce the terrorism threat," Haider said. "This is a big achievement for the TTP and its affiliates and grants them legitimacy as dialogue partners. This is why the church attack, strategically, doesn't make sense for TTP and so it could well have been mounted by another group on the orders of al-Qaeda."

The TTP is not the only active extremist group in the country, and the Jundullah wing of the Taliban claimed responsibility for the bombings, vowing to target non-Muslims in the country until the United States halts its drone attacks.

It is unclear how closely the group works with the TTP, but analysts say there is cause for worry.

"It is obvious that the Taliban want freedom to operate and their version of sharia imposed in at least the parts where they have influence," said Ayesha Siddiqa, a defense and security analyst, based in Islamabad.

"The extremists are gaining ground rapidly. It is not just the poor but the rich as well who are rapidly coming under the influence of extremist ideology or becoming latent-radical."

Meanwhile, locals say the situation is deteriorating on the ground.

"In the last few years, this area has become volatile," said Shabaz Khan, a storekeeper in his mid-40s in Peshawar. "It used to be a peaceful neighborhood but not anymore."

Nayyara Javed, 42, a teacher in Peshawer, was in the church when the attack happened. Her firth grade cousin, Muneeza Rayaz, 12, was killed "in God's house," she said.

"We are scared. We are not safe here," she said. "They should take care of us like their brothers and sisters. We are all equal. Our rights should be equal as well."

Many worry about the future.

"I still can't believe that half of my confirmation class has died," said Sharoon Nazir, 15, a student in Peshawar. "I don't know whether I will have the resolve to come back to All Saints Church - a place where I made so many friends who are now gone."

Contributing: Aisha Chowdhry in Washington


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