Salim Masih lost his father in an attack on a church in Peshewar in 2013. (Photo by Kamila Hyat/IRIN)
Fears are running high in the homes of the over 70,000 Christians in Youhanabad, a settlement in Lahore — the capital of Pakistan’s populous Punjab province.
Residents say they have been too afraid to venture beyond their doors since twin bomb blasts on Sunday killed at least 15 worshippers at church services and wounded another 70.
The attack, claimed by a Taliban splinter group, prompted violent demonstrations and clashes with the police.
“My parents have to go to work in a factory. But I have to stay home because it is too dangerous to take a bus to college,” Selina Yousaf, a student from Youhanabad, told IRIN. She said she was worried about missing exams.
Other residents have bigger fears. “I cannot get to work, my wife was injured in the attack and if I lose more days we will have no food to eat,” said Younis Masih, a daily laborer and father of four.
He said several of his neighbors were concerned about possible attacks on them by Muslims.
Tensions are especially high after two men were killed by a mob who believed they were linked to the bombings. Senior government officials condemned the murder of the two, who are believed to have been innocent.
“Exactly what happened is unclear. But the accounts of the mob killing have led to a very bad situation, with the Christians of Youhanabad fearing retaliation and more violence,” Behram Francis, Legal Aid Coordinator at the Lahore-based National Commission for Justice and Peace told IRIN. The NGO works against religious discrimination.
“For the families of those killed in the blast things are terrible. I know a three-year-old girl whose parents both died in church. Who will care for her now?” asked Francis. He also spoke of families who had lost breadwinners, and “will inevitably face much hardship both in the short and long term”.
Christians make up two percent of Pakistan's population of 180 million and for the most part are among the poorest and most vulnerable citizens. Christians have long felt threatened and have, along with other minorities, been targeted under Pakistan’s blasphemy law.
After the Lahore attacks, the autonomous Human Rights Commission of Pakistan demanded a thorough inquiry “to determine whether the arrangements made to protect religious congregations and living quarters, especially of the minority communities, are adequate and [whether] a system of oversight and renovation is in place.”
The blasts in Lahore were the first major attack on Christians since September 2013 when at least 78 people were killed and over 100 injured in a suicide bombing that targeted a Peshawar church. In both atrocities, the poverty of the victims compounded the effects of the attacks.
“Since that time, I have had to take my children out of school and put them to work in an automobile workshop so that we can eat,” Rahima Masih told IRIN from Peshawar. Her husband, a carpenter, was killed in the blast and she says the family’s economic situation has worsened since then. Rahima has five children to take care of and works as a washerwoman in her neighborhood. None of her children now go to school.
As unrest continues in Lahore, Christians across the city are scared. “We really don’t understand how anything like this could happen,” said Burna Anwar, a Christian housewife who lives in Fazlia Colony, 10 miles from Youhanabad. She says, however, that the tremors from the incident there have travelled to affect all Christians.
“My sister lives in the area and it was fortunate she and her family did not go to the church that was hit that day. They could easily have been among the victims,” Anwar said. She told IRIN fear and uncertainty was on the rise among the Christian community because of the inability of the security apparatus to apprehend those behind attacks on minorities.
There is intense anger also stemming from this. In Youhanabad, Salamat Masih, 60, told IRIN, “it is very hard to control the young men who are infuriated over what has happened. Yes, they are responsible for some of the violent protests that are taking place. But it is difficult to control them, and we fear their actions will only make things worse for everyone.”
“We hope there is no flare up and no further incident to inflame people. What we need is calm and the older people in Youhanabad are making an effort to handle things in a better way,” said Behram Francis.