By Hana Wali
On Jan 30, the Christian community in the city of Peshawar was rocked by the killing of a priest. Unidentified gunmen targeted and killed Pastor William Siraj. The two men approached the pastor’s car on a motorcycle before opening fire. Siraj had been heading home after the Sunday service, and died on the spot.
Peshawar is not new to violence against the Christian community. In 2013, dozens died in a twin bombing outside a church, including women and children. The community is now once again living in fear. The All Saints Church is a historical, British-era church, which also served as the site for the funeral service for Pastor Siraj.
Azad Marshall, President Bishop Church of Pakistan, said: “We strongly condemn the firing on clergy of Diocese of Peshawar and instant killing of Pastor William Siraj and injuring Rev Patrick Naeem earlier today. We demand justice and protection of Christians from the Government of Pakistan.”
Christians in Pakistan have little reason to feel safe in the country. They have experienced some of the worst attacks in the last decade or so. Peshawar itself is not a city known for its security when it comes to minorities. The city is the capital of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, bordering Afghanistan, and attacks on security forces have seen an uptick recently, with the Tehreek-e-Taliban (TTP) helming many of the attacks.
Siraj was accompanied by his colleague, Reverend Patrick Nadeem, who was taken to the Lady Reading Hospital and is currently out of danger. The event has left the community rattled.
Speaking about the ordeal, Naqqash Bhatti, a relative of the deceased, said, “We felt insecure before this. The feeling of insecurity increases when these kinds of incidents take place.”
An undeniable connection
After the 2013 bombings, the community helped create a smaller, less conspicuous church on the city outskirts. This place of worship was named ‘Martyrs of the All Saints Church’ in memory of the many who lost their lives.
It has been functioning as a safe space for the community since 2014. Siraj was on his way back home from the church when he was killed. The city’s Christians are some of the most marginalised people in the area, if not the entire country.
Many are now living in fear as they struggle with this recent tragedy, and grapple with the trauma they have experienced from the twin bombings almost a decade ago.
Protestant Bishop Humphrey Sarfaraz, who also attended Siraj’s funeral service, said he had requested the region’s top police official to arrange more security for the Christian clergy and enhanced patrolling for Sunday services.
According to the Pakistan Census data, about 3.53 percent of the country’s population consists of minorities, of which Christians account for just 1.27 percent. Meanwhile, despite being in such small numbers, they continue to be targeted by religious extremism, social isolation, and even legal persecution in the form of the blasphemy law.
The Director of the Center for Social Justice in Lahore, Peter Jacob, said that between the most recent census (2017) and the one before it (1998), the population of Christians has actually fallen by 0.32 percent, totaling 2.5 million.
“Even though Christians have migrated overseas and converted to Islam, our church records make us suspect that Christians may have been undercounted by at least half a million. We’re struggling to find accurate data, and somehow the government is not helping. It is not investigating,” he lamented.
The optics don’t matter
According to global rights watchdog Human Rights Watch, in a report released this month, religious minorities in Pakistan continue to face violence as authorities fail to provide adequate protection or hold perpetrators to account.
There are no real solutions or actionable plans being offered. A small group of Muslim scholars seem to have tried to bring about some kind of social change by praying for Pastor Siraj Williams inside a church. However, unless they also rigorously introduce pro-minority rhetoric into their teachings and sermons, attitudes towards minorities will not change.
The recommendation of many is that security be provided to churches. However, the reality is that Pakistan has continually failed to provide protection to minority groups. In a country where a lynch mob can wipe out entire households in minutes (as was witnessed in Lahore’s Joseph colony attacks during 2013), a few security protocols will add nothing except a bull’s eye on where the next attack should be dealt with.
We live in a time where Christians struggle to get vendors to add “Merry Christmas” to their cakes. There is little to no sympathy when an attack of this magnitude takes place. Change needs more than just optics.