Kamran Chaudhry, Lahore
Updated: February 20, 2017 08:55 AM GMT
Pakistani security personnel stand guard outside a church during a Christmas Day Service in Quetta on Dec. 25, 2016. Church locations across Pakistan are again on high alert after a series of deadly attacks by Islamic terrorists have recently targeted minorities in the country. (Photo by Banaras Khan/AFP)
Security has been ratcheted up at churches around Pakistan following a fresh wave of terror attacks that killed at least 119 people in the country last week.
Taliban groups as well as the so-called Islamic State have claimed responsibility for nine terror attacks in all four of Pakistan's provinces. The death toll from a single suicide blast at the 13th century Muslim Sufi shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar in Sindh province on Feb. 16, has risen to 88 including women and children.
"Play your role, keep an eye on any suspicious items or persons around you. Turn off your mobile phones during prayers and do not bring non-Christian friends to church," said Sarfraz Victor, a catechist, addressing hundreds of parishioners gathered at Sacred Heart Cathedral in Lahore during Sunday service Feb. 19.
"The district coordination officer of Lahore called our church security team and shared the alert. Nobody is now allowed to pass the church gate without being checked," he later told ucanews.com.
Lahore police carried out exercises in various churches in the Punjab capital in the days following the attack.
The city's Catholics during Sunday Mass also offered prayers and candles for the bomb victims and their families.
Authorities from St. Francis Xavier Cathedral in Hyderabad, near the site of last week's suicide attack, are also planning to increase security. "Caritas installed three CCTV cameras a few years ago but they have been awaiting repairs for a year. All churches in the city have employed security guards but we have none. We plan to improve this soon," said Father Paulus Gill the assistant parish priest.
Meanwhile, the Catholic bishops' National Commission for Justice and Peace called for national unity. "We need to set aside all our differences and join hands to defeat this menace of extremism. Every individual is accountable for the protection and safety of their fellow citizens and should report any suspicious activity or persons," they said in a Feb. 18 statement.
Concerns increased after Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, a Taliban breakaway faction, warned churches in a video message: "Churches, temples, gurdawaras [Sikh places of worship] and all religious places of non-Muslims are not included in our targets, until and unless these places are used by the enemies [referring to the Pakistan Army and government] against us," they said in a short video released on Feb. 14.
The same group claimed responsibility for suicide attacks on two churches in Lahore in 2015 and for targeting an amusement park on Easter Sunday 2016, which killed more than 70 people.
Pakistan has 185 million people of which about 95 percent are Muslim while Christians account for about 2 percent. Hindus are similar in number and other religious minorities make up the final 1 percent.