- Christian mobs go on a rampage, torture two suspected militants to death and set their bodies on fire
- Block Ferozepur Road for hours, refuse to let police and other security and govt personnel enter Christian neighbourhood
- Mass protests called for Monday as Christian schools announce day’s closure to mourn attacks
At least 16 people were killed and 78 others injured, 30 of them critically, when Taliban suicide bombers struck two churches during Sunday mass in Lahore’s Youhanabad locality, sparking mob violence in which two other suspected terrorists were killed.
Up to 4,000 Christians from the 100,000-strong Christian inhabited area later took to the streets of the city, many armed with clubs as they smashed vehicles and attacked a city bus station in a rare show of anger by the weak non-Muslim community.
Pastor Irshad Ashaknaz of the Protestant Christ Church and Father Francis Gulzar of the Roman Catholic Saint John’s Church told Pakistan Today in separate interviews that up to 2,000 Christians were present in the two churches for the Sunday mass when the terrorists struck them.
CHRIST CHURCH BOMBING:
“The church service was about to end when we heard 12-13 gunshots at the main door and within seconds a loud explosion shattered the windowpanes of the church and the nearby shops and houses. We immediately huddled everyone out of the church building from the back door,” said Pastor Ashknaz, whose church was the first to be struck by the terrorists.
The church official said that they later found out that the bomber had first tried to storm the main gate by opening fire at the police and security volunteers but on facing stiff resistance, he had detonated his explosives.
“Most of the 13 casualties that occurred in the Christ Church bombing were of local volunteers, passersby and shopkeepers. The toll would have been much bigger had the bomber been able to enter the hall. It’s only because of the immense bravery shown by our own security volunteers that we have been able to avoid a major catastrophe,” said Pastor Ashknaz while lamenting inadequate security provided by the local police despite the churches being designated as high security zones.
Father Gulzar, pastor in-charge of the Saint John’s Catholic Church, told Pakistan Today that there were at least 1,200 Christians present inside the hall when the attack took place.
“Four policemen were deployed by the local police station but three of them were watching Pakistan’s cricket match with Ireland inside a room while one official and our security volunteers were standing guard at the main gate. The suicide attacker tried to force his way through the main gate but one of our volunteers Yousaf wrestled him down. The terrorist then opened fire on Yousaf and later detonated the explosives strapped to his legs.”
“Another terrorist attempted to enter the church by scaling the wall but a young Christian named Akash Qaiser took him head on, forcing the bomber to set off the explosives. The bombing killed Yousaf, Akash and a police constable but saved hundreds of other lives. Their martyrdoms will always be remembered,” he said.
JAMAATUL AHRAR CLAIMS RESPONSIBILITY:
The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan’s Jamaatul Ahrar faction described the blasts as suicide attacks and vowed to continue their campaign.
Jamaatul Ahrar has claimed most of the recent bombings at Shia imambargahs, including those at Shikarpur, Peshawar and Islamabad. The terrorist outfit had pledged allegiance to the ultra-extremist Islamic State, also known as Dae’sh, but only three days ago it had announced rejoining the TTP.
CHRISTIANS ON A RAMPAGE:
Asher Masih, a local Christian, said that the locals were able to catch two suspected terrorists “armed with pistols” soon after the blasts.
The suspects were later brutally tortured by the enraged Christian mob and their bodies burnt on the Ferozepur Road. It was not clear whether they were still alive at the time.
Christians make up around two per cent of Pakistan’s mainly Muslim population of over 200 million. They have been targeted in attacks and riots in recent years.
Sunday’s attacks were the worst on the community since a devastating double suicide-bombing in Peshawar in September 2013 killed 82 people.
That came months after more than 3,000 Muslim protesters torched some 100 houses as they rampaged through Joseph Colony, another Christian neighbourhood of Lahore, following blasphemy allegations against a Christian man.
The thousands of Christian protesters who clashed with police on Sunday attacked cars with stones and sticks, as women wept and beat their heads and chests.
The protesters later turned on the city’s bus rapid transit system — a signature project of the ruling PML-N party of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
The furious mob also roughed up Senator Kamran Michael of the ruling PML-N and did not allow him to enter the neighbourhood.
“Kamran Michael is a puppet of the Sharifs and it is under his watch that Christians across Punjab are repeatedly targeted by the majority Muslims. Every time an incident of persecution surfaces, Shahbaz Sharif sends Michael to placate us with false promises but this drama would not be tolerated anymore. Christians were right in restricting his entry to the neighbourhood,” said a fuming local who identified himself as Munawar Bhatti.
The angry mobs also held hostage three policemen for watching TV instead of guarding the Catholic church. The officials were released a couple of hours later amid reports that they were also beaten up by the locals.
PML-N GOVT RESPONSIBLE:
A large number of Christian political and church leaders reached Youhanabad soon after the incident as Christians also took to the streets in other cities, including Karachi, where around 200 protesters from Essanagri blocked a main road and burnt tyres. There were also demonstrations in Peshawar, Multan and in Quetta.
Sajid Ishaq, central minorities president of the opposition Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) and chairman of the Pakistan Interfaith League (PIL), and PTI Lahore minorities leader Rufus Solomon, were among those who reached the area soon after the attacks.
Talking to Pakistan Today, Ishaq lamented that Christians and other minority communities continued to suffer from repeated incidents of persecution and terrorism under the PML-N provincial government led by Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif.
“We condemn the attitude of the PML-N government for failing to provide security to minorities’ places of worship. Such incidents will continue to occur unless the ruling party gives up its policy of patronizing terrorist outfits like Lashkar-e-Jhangvi etc. Moreover, big tragedies like Shantinagar, Gojra, Joseph Colony and the lynching of a poor Christian couple at a brick kiln in Kot Radha Kishan has also failed to move the Punjab government,” he said.
“Christians have lost faith in the PML-N and we do not trust the investigation carried out under this government. A judicial commission should be announced to investigate this attack and the report should be made public,” said the two PTI leaders while announcing that Christians in Lahore would come out on the roads on Monday (today) to register their protest against the government.
However, Bishop of Lahore Irfan Jamil appealed to Christians to stay calm and not let terrorists succeed in their design.
“Terrorists want to destroy the peace of this country. They are attacking mosques, imambargahs and markets. Like minorities they are also attacking Muslims,” he said.
Christian educational institutions have, meanwhile, announced closure of schools across Pakistan for one day to mourn the tragic incident while several small political and civil society outfits have announced protests and vigils in the coming days.
The Punjab government has also announced a day’s mourning and a compensation of Rs 500,000 each for the families of those killed in the incident while the injured persons would get Rs 75,000 each.
POLICE DENIES NEGLIGENCE:
Meanwhile, Lahore Deputy Inspector General of Police Dr Haider Ashraf denied negligence on the part of police officials deployed for security of the two churches even as the Punjab government suspended the entire staff of the police station concerned, Nishtar Colony, for not making adequate security arrangements.
The DIG further said, “It was the police and local security that deterred the suicide bombers from entering the churches otherwise the loss would have been colossal.” He added that it is always difficult to stop a suicide bomber.
Commenting on the lynching of the two suspected terrorists, DIG Ashraf said, “We did not stop the enraged mob as there could have been a clash between the police and the mob.”
He said the police have registered two separate cases – one against the attack on the two churches and the other against the people involved in killing of the two suspected terrorists’ who were lynched and burnt alive.
According to an initial police report, the suicide bombers were wearing vests fitted with explosives weighing five kilogrammes each.
Punjab Education and Sports Minister Rana Mashood said the government was determined to eliminate militancy and terrorism and “all terrorists would be brought to justice”.
“We have never looked at religion. Christians are our brothers and we have to deliver for them. We are not separated by religion, this is an attack on Pakistan and we feel their pain,” he said.