Church security to have weapons at Christmas services

More than 100 volunteers trained in 'combat skills' as extra police deployed following bomb attack on Pakistan church
Church security to have weapons at Christmas services

Security personnel outside the Bethel Memorial Methodist Church in Quetta, Balochistan Province, after the Dec. 17 terrorist attack which claimed nine lives and injured more than 50 people. (Photo by Naseem James)

Church security volunteers in Pakistan’s Punjab State have been urged to keep licensed firearms at hand during Christmas services in the wake of a suicide bombing.

The Dec. 17 attack on the Bethel Memorial Methodist Church in Quetta, the capital of Balochistan Province, killed nine worshipers, including three women, and injured at least 50.

More than 100 Christian volunteers in Lahore were Dec. 19 trained in "combat" skills such as jumping over walls and shooting.

"Keep a licensed weapon undercover," said Security Superintendent of Police Ibadat Nisar when addressing volunteers.

"Use it if a suspicious person tries to run towards the prayer gathering."

He said all security personnel should be aware of "short cuts" in church compounds and congregations would need to be cleared as soon as services finished.

Volunteers were also learning how to scan for firearms using metal detectors.

Priests and pastors in the Muslim-majority state have been passing on information about security precautions at the end of services.

According to Punjab Human Rights and Minorities Affairs Minister Khalil Tapir Sindhu, 1,100 policemen will be deployed for the security of churches this Christmas in Lahore alone.

"Even the smallest church will have five police guards," said Sindhu, who is himself a Christian.

Churches were being asked to get local  volunteers to identify worshippers.

"We are vigilant, the rest depends on God," Sindhu said.

Some Church leaders had asked him to cancel various church services, including midnight masses on Dec. 24, but he would not do so.

"We are ready to die and will not compromise on religious obligations," Sindhu said. 

"However, this Christmas will be celebrated with simplicity."

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He was speaking on the evening of Dec. 19 at a candlelit vigil for the Bethel Memorial Methodist Church bomb victims.

"Hail Lord Jesus" and "down with terrorism" cried more than 50 Christians, half of them women and children.

They also recited psalms and prayers while standing in front of a huge banner emblazoned with post-blast photos taken at the bombed church.

Punjab Chief Minister Muhammad Shehbaz Sharif has ordered intensive security measures.

A security audit of 1,077 churches across Punjab completed in October found that 67 per cent did not have their own security guards.

Punjab is home to most of Pakistan’s Christians and there have been spates of bomb and mob attacks during the past two decades.

In 2015, fifteen people were killed and more than 70 injured when two Taliban suicide bombers attacked churches during Sunday services in Lahore.

The attacks were in the Youhanabad area of the city, which houses an estimated 100,000 Christians.

There are no reliable census figures for the number of Christians in Punjab, which has a total population of 27 million. But some estimates put it as high as 10 per cent, or 270,000.

According to Pastor Simon Bashir of the Bethel Memorial Methodist Church, attacks on Christians in the southwestern province of Balochistan are a relatively new phenomenon.

"I used to travel around the province with visitors without fear," he said. "Christians, living in scattered communities across the province, lived silently in peaceful co-existence. But Daesh terrorists are now targeting us one by one."

He said this year's Christmas service in Quetta will be conducted in a community hall, situated in the premises of the Methodist Church, amid tight security.

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