Police guard the entrance of Sacred Heart Cathedral in Lahore on April 14. (Photo by Kamran Chaudhry/ucanews.com)
Religious extremists in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan have effectively declared war on Easter, but retired Brigadier Samson Simon Sharaf is ready for battle as he oversees security operations for 36 churches.
The churches belong to different denominations and are spread across Pakistan in its key cities.
Sharaf, a devout Catholic, works in concert with state security personnel to provide free security for parishioners at this sensitive time via the Veterans of Pakistan (VOP), an organization of retired armed services personnel who run private security companies.
The initiative came into being following an attack in 2013 on a 130-year-old church in Peshawar, the capital of Khyber Paktunkhwa province.
At least 85 people were killed and more than 140 wounded when two suicide bombers blew themselves up at the historic church immediately after Sunday service in what has been described as one of the deadliest attacks on the beleaguered religious minority in Pakistan.
"Christians are a bigger target for terrorists than Hindus. Religious terrorist groups receive financial support from neighboring India, which, being a Hindu-majority country, tends to spare temples in Pakistan," said Sharaf, 64.
"We are paying a high price to fight them," added the devout Catholic, who served in Pakistan's army for 33 years.
Sharaf, the VOP's main media liaison officer, also designed the standard operating procedure for any staff who are deployed on Sundays and religious feasts.
Samson Simon Sharaf (second right) is pictured with Cardinal Joseph Coutts (second left) and Aasiya Nasir (right), a Christian member of the National Assembly, in this 2018 file photo. (Photo supplied)
He works with local police to help organize the provision of vehicles, guards, commandos and snipers at various churches for the safety of parishioners.
"Our major clients are banks, which are closed on Sundays," Sharaf said. "However, VOP staff are on duty at churches despite this usually being their day off. This is our commitment to the well-being of our community. Despite that, we still make sure we have sufficient manpower available to cover Sunday Mass at scores of major churches."
It costs the group about 2 lakh (US$1,400) a month to protect the churches.
In recognition of his efforts for the country, Sharaf won the Sitara-i-Imtiaz (Star of Excellence) award in 2005.
He said one of the biggest challenges his network faces nowadays in safeguarding Christians across the country is a lack of cooperation from bishops.
"The original plan was to guard 100 churches but most of them chose not to accept our offer. Many bishops didn't [take the security threat] seriously. They didn't even reply to my emails," he said.
"Church authorities have yet to [officially] acknowledge us. They never so much as offer tea to our staff, or even provide a simple courtesy like preparing dinner for our (VOP) executives.
"One bishop even tried to blame our team [for bringing stolen weapons inside a cathedral] after VOP guards recovered a pistol from someone who was living on the church premises."
Churches in Pakistan have been on high alert over Easter, Christmas and New Year ever since a suicide bombing in 2016 struck Lahore's crowded Gulshan-e-Iqbal Park that Easter. The attack yielded 72 casualties, mostly women and children.
The country's security and intelligence agencies foiled another major terrorist attack planned for Easter the following year in the same city when they captured Noreen Leghari, a sophomore medical student in Hyderabad, during a military raid on an Islamic State cell in Lahore on April 15.
Brigadier Sharaf was in 2005 awarded the Sitara-i-Imtiaz (Star of Excellence) award, the third-highest honor and civilian award in Pakistan. (Photo supplied)
A few days later, the military released a video clip during which the 19-year-old confessed she had agreed to blow herself up at a church in Lahore this Easter as Islamic State continues its bloody campaign to persecute Christians.
Sadly, planned attacks of this nature are not isolated.
In 2018, four members of a Catholic family were killed in a militant attack in Quetta, the capital of restive Balochistan province, a day after the minority community celebrated Easter.
Some 20 people died, including eight Shia Hazaras, while 48 people were injured when a powerful bomb ripped through a vegetable market on April 12.
Islamic State claimed responsibility for the blast and released a photograph of the bomber along with his name, saying the attack targeted Shia Muslims.
That same evening, two people were killed and at least 10 injured in a motorcycle bomb blast in Chaman, 97 kilometers northwest of Quetta.
Churches issue IDs
In Karachi Archdiocese, some churches have already issued identity cards and car stickers to community members as part of increased security measures for Good Friday and Easter.
The Pakistan Churches Security Council (PCSC), a body of Christian activists tasked with protecting churches by making them more self-reliant, has chalked up a plan to form a community-based security force with the assistance of local district administrations.
The PCSC has been training volunteers from each neighborhood at a church level since March.
In Lahore, parishioners have been asked to cooperate with church security teams. A team of 12 young volunteers, trained by local police in combat skills, has been deployed to check on worshippers at the Sacred Heart Cathedral of Lahore.
St. Anthony High School and the Sacred Heart Cathedral of Lahore are fenced off by barbed wire on April 14. (Photo by Kamran Chaudhry/ucanews.com)
Punjab, home to most of Pakistan's Christians, has over 2,000 churches.
In Quetta, Bethel Memorial Methodist Church, the apostolic vicariate of Balochistan province, has built barracks for about 30 Frontier Corps personnel to be stationed as church guards.
The army has been providing round-the-clock security at the church, where nine people died after armed militants and suicide bombers stormed the building in December 2017.
Impoverished Balochistan is Pakistan's largest province. Islamist militants and separatists have ramped up their attacks on Christians, Shia Hazaras and security forces in recent years.
Sharaf, who also serves as a member of a core committee of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf government, said the government is not discriminatory and supports moves to guard all religions.
"The army protects places of worship for religious minorities that are designated as military areas," he said.
"The system does not work against us. Prime Minister Imran Khan does not discriminate on the basis of religion. More mosques and shrines have been attacked in our country than churches."
Archbishop Joseph Arshad of Islamabad-Rawalpindi Diocese in Pakistan's Northern Province said he appreciated the efforts of the VOP.
"Security risks are always the biggest challenge when it comes to big religious events," he said.
"We are encouraged by the fact the VOP is a joint venture by one Catholic and three Muslim officers. This kind of collaborative care and protection is priceless. Respecting and safeguarding Pakistan's religious minorities means we are protecting our country herself."
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