Francis: 'World seeks to hide' Christian persecution

Broken glass lies in the mud street in Lahore, Pakistan, in front of St. John’s Catholic Church, whose blood-splattered entrance is partly blocked by iron charpoys and ladders to control visitors’ entry. Inside, the shoes of the Sunday congregation are piled up in corners below the holy water font.

Pakistan

A portion of the blue iron gate lies twisted beneath the stairs of the Maria grotto, while its bullet-riddled other half is in the middle of the church compound following the March 15 deadly blast that killed 17 people, including seven Muslims, and injured dozens more. The Taliban took credit for the attack, where two suicide bombers detonated themselves outside of St. John’s Catholic Church and the Christ Church during Sunday service in the Youhanabad area of Lahore, home to about 100,000 Christians. More than 2,000 worshippers where present in both churches at the time of the explosions.

Since the attacks, the largest Christian settlement in Pakistan has come under tight scrutiny after the unprecedented reaction to the bombings.

“The ball bearings struck our house, located half a kilometer from the attacked site,” said Farhan Lawrence, a Catholic who was visiting his aunt in Youhanabad. “Wailing women ran past our street, and then I rushed toward the church. There were pools of blood and injured, limbless bodies everywhere.”

“I helped in lifting two men in the ambulance; one of them had his upper lip completely ripped off. There was no room for more, but we piled up a third one hoping to save his life,” Lawrence said. “I can’t forget what I saw.” The lights in the Christian ghetto went off after the 11 a.m. blast, but the whole nation watched on their television sets what happened next.

Papal prayer for Pakistan

That same day, Pope Francis spoke of his pain at the persecution of Christians in Pakistan in his Angelus prayer in St. Peter’s Square.

“These are Christian churches: Christians are being persecuted. Our brothers and sisters’ blood is shed only because they are Christians. As I assure you of my prayers for the victims and their families, I ask the Lord, I beseech the Lord, source of all good, for the gift of peace and harmony to this country,” the Holy Father said.

“I implore God ... that this persecution against Christians — that the world seeks to hide — comes to an end and that there is peace.”

Vatican police force has confirmed that ISIS has threatened the 78-year-old pontiff, who uses strong language to condemn the action of Islamic extremists.

Local leaders react

The Argentine pope stands tall in a 15-foot banner, erected by a Christian organization to condemn the suicide blasts, in front of the Lahore Press Club. “We are also Pakistanis,” states the slogan inscribed under two Pakistani flags on both sides of the pope. More than 20 Caritas Pakistan staff gathered under the Pope Francis’ photo during a protest rally March 17. “We want peace,” and “stop hooliganism,” they chanted on the roadside.

Pakistan
Caritas Pakistan staff‡ protest the treatment of Christians in Lahore, Pakistan, on March 17. Photo courtesy of Kamran Chaudhry

Several Christian organizations joined public protests a day before in front of Punjab Assembly and chanted slogans against Taliban and terrorism. These included the Centre for Human Rights Education (CHRE,) a Christian-led body that handed out pamphlets of a “Charter of Demands,” which called for effective implementation of a plan to: target the hideouts and training centers of the militant outfits; ban their access to educational institutions; block the financing of terror groups; target the supporters of militants; prohibit entrance of foreign terrorists; ban hate speech and illegal weapons; eliminate hate material from national curriculum; and revisit laws that instigate violence.

A visibly shaken Archbishop Sebastian Shah of Lahore visited the attacked churches, where he consoled the survivors and held meetings with protest leaders at the vicariate of Christ Church, which was riddled with bomb shrapnel.

“The Catholic Church of Pakistan strongly condemns the brutal suicide bombings against churches of Youhanabad. The government of Punjab and federal government must take extraordinary measures to protect churches and religious minorities,” stated Archbishop Joseph Coutts of Karachi, president of Pakistan Catholic Bishops’ Conference, in a statement.

However, most travelers were barred from heading to Youhanabad, where the collective funeral of 10 Christians — one of them a 12-year-old boy — was held March 17.

The highway was blocked for days as rangers were called to assist in the wake of damages to bus stations and clashes between Christians and police. One of the protestors was killed after a harassed woman tried to drive her way through the mob.

History of Church attacks

The latest attack on Christians brought back memories of the 2013 twin suicide bombings at All Saints Church in Peshawar, the capital of restive Northern Province, where 127 Christians were killed and more than 250 were injured. Islamist groups linked to Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan claimed responsibility for both attacks, but they are not alone in this rampage.

Many churches have been raided in the past after allegations of insulting the Prophet Muhammad or desecrating the Quran — fatal offenses in Pakistan.

Two churches and 178 houses were torched in a mob attack in Lahore in 2013 after a local Christian was accused of blasphemy. In the port city of Karachi, six churches were attacked, looted, fired upon or set ablaze in 2012 alone.

The trend gained momentum after 1997, when Muslim mobs razed 800 homes and desecrated 13 churches in Shantinagar, a Christian village of Punjab, after alleged blasphemy.

In 2005, a mob estimated at about 3,000 attacked church properties in and around Sangla Hill, 140 miles south of Islamabad. In 2009, 10 Christians were killed — seven of them burned alive — while four churches were destroyed in Gojra riots following a blasphemy allegation. (See map above)

Minority Christians, who make up around 2 percent of the total population in Pakistan, usually do not register complaints with the police, fearing a backlash.

“Churches and schools are soft targets since they are unarmed and do not retaliate. Minorities are prioritized to stir fear,” said Father Morris Jalal, a senior priest who has been following the Lahore bombings.

“We are against violence and reject what the Christian mob did in Youhanabad, but there are many factors behind it. Poor law and order condition, denial of justice, poverty and frustration are to blame. This is the first time Christians have resorted to this trend, which is dangerous and alarming for us,” the priest said, referring to the angry protests that followed the suicide bombings.

“We are trying to pacify the crowd and urging them to record their protest in a legal way. We are also demanding that army courts handle the case of church bombings; the witnesses will not appear in normal courts. News of Muslim groups protesting against the killing of one of their own is already surfacing.”

However, peace will prevail, said Father Jalal. “Army rangers will control the situation.”

Kamran Chaudhry writes from Pakistan.