Eighty-four people were killed, and 200 were injured, in the bloodiest attack ever carried out against the Christian community on Pakistani soil.
PESHAWAR, Pakistan — There is little sign now of the blood and human remains that were strewn across the courtyard of the All Saints Church when two suicide bombers detonated their vests after Sunday mass last week.
Thanks to a handful of churchgoers and sympathetic neighbors, the floors have been washed and the walls have been scrubbed. It is almost as if the church has been restored to its past glory: Built in 1883 with Mughal-style Muslim minarets, the whitewashed church looks like a mosque, an homage to the predominantly Muslim city in which Christian worshippers have performed their rituals for 130 years.
Eighty-four people were killed, and 200 were injured, in the bloodiest attack ever carried out against the Christian community on Pakistani soil. It was the first of three bombs in Peshawar in a week: the second one killed 17 government employees on a bus on Friday, and the third was detonated in the old city’s Qissa Khwani Bazaar, claiming 41 lives.
Questions remain about who is behind the attacks. The militant alliance Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) has denied at least two of the three attacks — including the one on the church — though a splinter group of the group has taken responsibility for bombing the bus. Shahidullah, a spokesman for the TTP, has said that they are only targeting security forces and government functionaries, and that they strive to avoid civilian casualties.
A host of theories are making the rounds in the media as politicians and analysts have struggled to make sense of the string of attacks last week. The ruling party Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI), which has formed the provincial government in the northern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, has claimed that the bombings aim to undermine their hopes to initiate talks with the TTP.
“We think these attacks are a conspiracy to undermine the PTI government,” said Aeisha Gulalai, a Member of the National Assembly from Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). PTI leader and former cricketer, Imran Khan, has said that the TTP should be allowed to open an office much like the Afghan Taliban has done in Doha, Qatar, in the run-up to NATO troop withdrawals in neighboring Afghanistan.
However, after much criticism from the media, the PTI has launched targeted operations around the city in an attempt to round up suspects.
Others, like Amir Rana, the director of the Pakistan Institute of Peace Studies, have argued that the attacks are part of a larger strategic shift by militants groups.
“I think militants are looking to carry out spectacular, attention-grabbing attacks, with the aim of positioning themselves as a viable force, establishing that the state has little control, and ensuring space in headlines within the Pakistani and global media,” says Rana.
Poor and marginalized: Christians in the crossfire
The community has spent hours clearing up the tragedy, but there is little that anyone can do to remove the scars: on the face of the white-washed church, on the bodies of the injured, or in the lives of those who had to say goodbye to the dead. The pockmarks and broken windows are a dark reminder of the last time that this church’s worshippers were murdered: In 1883, nine Christians were shot as they were adding a large, black cross to the front of their pristine new church.
The bullet hole from that attack can still be seen in the middle of the cross. “Perhaps,” remarks a passerby, “we will never remove the marks from Sunday either. Instead they will be kept as a reminder of last Sunday’s carnage.”
As the Pakistani and international media continues to search for reasons behind the attacks, Christians find themselves struggling to make sense of what happened. The militants have said that the bombing was a reprisal attack for drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal areas.
But for those who lost their loved ones in the carnage, such explanations make little sense. Most of the Christians near Kohati Gate in Peshawar’s old town work as sweepers and cleaners. As a result, being a Christian becomes as powerful a marker for the underclass as it does for religion.
“We have lived in this area for decades. Our women rinse your filthy toilets, and wash your bathrooms. We clean the bowls you defecate in. We have nothing to do with all of these high-level political issues. And yet you attack us, and you fail to protect us,” says Miriam, a Christian mother who works as a maid, and who lost her son in the bombing. Her daughter remains critically injured, unable to move from her bed at the nearby Lady Reading Hospital, where hundreds of worshippers descended on the day of the attack.
“What do we have to do with drone strikes? That explanation makes no sense. This has a lot more to do with the fact that we are incredibly vulnerable, and very easy to attack,” says the Bishop of Peshawar, Humphey Sarfaraz Peter.
According to Ayesha Siddiqa, a security analyst and commentator, it is the continued socioeconomic marginalization of Christians, combined with the space given to Islamist groups to develop and spread vitriolic anti-Christian discourse in their writings, that makes the community especially vulnerable.
“Why forget that we ourselves are responsible for the attack on these poor Christians? The bias against this community is inbuilt into our psyche,” said Siddiqa in a weekly column for Pakistan’s The Express Tribune. “There are many a people who wouldn’t share the same plate or glass with Christians. The majority of Pakistan’s Christians belong to the lowest socioeconomic class and they continue to remain there and treated the same way as they were before their forefathers converted to Christianity to escape maltreatment.”
Some security, no justice
Back at the church, 23-year-old Tabeeb sits down on a rickety plastic chair to speak of his long-held distrust of the authorities. He had told the parish committee at the church that locals should organize a community police force to patrol the gates during Sunday mass, and the streets the rest of the week. His brother died during the attack.
“The likelihood that the government will take action is next to none. I am also unsure that they will beef up security. They have stationed 100 police constables around the church now, but why were there only four guards on Sunday, a day where the church is full of hundreds of people?” says Tabeeb.
Though the attack in Peshawar was the first operation by a militant group targeting Christians since 2002, riots in Gojra town in Pakistan’s Punjab province, and its cultural capital of Lahore, left Christians dead, their homes burnt to ashes. The police have yet to make any arrests in either riot, prompting some within the community to question whether the authorities are serious about bringing the perpetrators to justice and providing the community with security.
Unlike the young Tabeeb, Peshawar’s Bishop Peter, is willing to give the authorities a chance. In a meeting with the provincial government cabinet, its chief minister assured Bishop Peter that the community would receive extra security — and be allowed to make its own security arrangements, perhaps in the form of the community police force that Tabeeb seeks.
“As for bringing the groups behind this to justice. Well, they have yet to find the group that killed Benazir Bhutto, I have little faith that they will find the groups behind this bombing,” says Bishop Peter, referring to the 2007 suicide attack against a former prime minister.
Miriam is less certain. For her, the story of Christian misery is part of a far wider problem.
“We were killed because we do not matter,” she said. “Not before, not now, and not in the future. No matter what we do, some people are just determined to keep us where we are.”