Pakistan: A land for Muslims and non-Muslims any more?

by - 6th November 2013

THE MORNING service had just finished at All Saints’ Anglican Church, Peshawar, and the majority of the congregation of 700 had gathered in the courtyard to share a communal meal provided by local families, when two suicide bombers walked into the compound and detonated their bomb vests. 

A total of 117 people were killed and some 165 injured. 

‘At the end of the service’ Revd Ejaz Gill the pastor tells Lapido in Rawalpindi, ‘I stand at the door to shake the hands of church members as they leave. 

‘Once they had all left I went back into the vestry to change, when suddenly there was an immense explosion which knocked out the electricity, shattered all the windows, and caused a roof beam to fall from the ceiling, slamming me to the floor.

‘I got up and ran outside. 

‘All I could see were bodies everywhere, covered in blood; some were moving, some were not. 

‘Some of our women had had their clothes blown off by the blast, so we found clothes to cover them. 

‘Severed limbs were everywhere, blackened by the chemicals in the bomb, and the ball bearings that the terrorists had packed into their bombs were embedded everywhere, in bodies, in the walls of the church. 

Ambulances started to arrive to carry the wounded to hospital, many of them from the Al-Khidmat organisation, the charitable wing of the Jama’at-e-Islami. 

In an ironic twist, it was therefore in the ambulances of an Islamist organisation that Christian victims of Islamist violence were ferried to hospital.

‘The Lady Reading hospital was a mess,’ continues Revd. Gill, citing a lack of staff and essential equipment.

‘Only two doctors were on duty, neither of them a surgeon, and there were shortages of anaesthesia, oxygen, and drips. 

‘Christian nurses in the area who were having a day off rushed back from their homes and hostels to help the wounded, and without their help many more people would have died’.

Following the attack - the single worst against Christians in Pakistan's short history - the sheer logistics of managing such a catastrophe were overwhelming.

‘People were collecting body parts from the courtyard of the church for some hours – hands, arms, everything was collected in plastic bags.

‘We were doing funerals until 2 a.m. the next morning as there were just so many bodies. 

Revd. Gill is critical of the official response to the attack, claiming that local politicians, including Imran Khan, leader of the Tehreek-e-Insaf (Justice Movement), came to the hospital merely to deliver prepared speeches and left without visiting any of the victims.

Apart from announcing cash gifts to the families of the deceased, the government of Nawaz Sharif has done nothing else for those affected, with Western donors, local Christians and Christian aid agencies covering most of the hospital bills for the most seriously injured. 

Pakistan was intended, from the outset, to be a place where Muslims and non-Muslims alike were free to live and worship, but the increasingly sectarian nature of Pakistani extremism is widening divisions between the different religious groups within the country.

In recent years Ahmadiyyas, Sufis, Shias and Hindus have been targeted by Wahhabi fanatics of the Taliban, and a new group Jundullah, which claimed responsibility for the Peshawar attack.

Jundullah means ‘army of God’, not in Urdu but significantly in Arabic.  There are three groups going by the name of Jundullah in Pakistan, one in the south in Karachi, and two in Baluchistan, independent of one another. 

The group that claimed responsibility for the bomb began as an Iranian anti-Shia movement and hides out along the border with Iran.  Founder Ahmed Marwat was originally part of the Iranian group of Sunni militants hiding in Baluchistan.

He ended up in an Iranian jail. In 2009, two years after his release, he cobbled together his own anti-Shiite Jundullah group and lined up beside Pakistan's Tehrik-e-Taliban – but they have denied links.

Marwat's Jundullah is believed to count among its members some foreign, al-Qaeda linked fighters whose propensity for violence ‘knows no bounds’ according to former military in the region.

The Pakistan government has since given each affected family $5,000.

Says Gill: ‘My people do not want to leave Pakistan – this is their land, their language, these are their people, this is the work to which God has called us.

‘But if you were in our place, what would you do?’

The writer of this piece cannot be named.  He is bringing up three children in the shadow of the bombed church, built 130 years ago.  He answers the question at the end of the piece in a letter sent back to the UK this week:  ‘What would I do? Read from Revelation, pray, and recommit ourselves to Pakistan and to doing anything we can to offer peace and grace, even in a time of such barbarous violence. Not a spirit of fear but one of power and love...’