Lahore Tragedy is Pakistan’s Moment of Reckoning

The Easter attack on Lahore’s Christian community is a tragedy, but also an opportunity for the government to take a public stance against violent attacks on its minority groups.

Pakistani Christians mourn the death of a blast victim of the March 27 suicide bombing, in Lahore on March 28, 2016.


Pakistan's army launched raids and arrested suspects after a Taliban suicide bomber targeting Christians over Easter killed 72 people including many children in a park crowded with families. / AFP / ARIF ALI        (Photo credit should read ARIF ALI/AFP/Getty Images)
Pakistani Christians mourn the death of a blast victim of the March 27 suicide bombing, in Lahore on March 28, 2016. Pakistan's army launched raids and arrested suspects after a Taliban suicide bomber targeting Christians over Easter killed 72 people including many children in a park crowded with families. / AFP / ARIF ALI (Photo credit should read ARIF ALI/AFP/Getty Images)
Pakistani Christians mourn the death of a blast victim of the March 27 suicide bombing, in Lahore on March 28, 2016. Pakistan's army launched raids and arrested suspects after a Taliban suicide bomber targeting Christians over Easter killed 72 people including many children in a park crowded with families. / AFP / ARIF ALI (Photo credit should read ARIF ALI/AFP/Getty Images)

The March 27 bombing in Lahore was, in many ways, a grim déjà vu for Pakistan’s Christian community, as a suicide bomber belonging to a Taliban splinter group targeted families celebrating Easter in a city park. The attack, which left over 70 dead, including both Muslims and Christians, was the deadliest assault on Christians in Pakistan since the twin suicide bombings at All Saints Church in Peshawar that killed more than 80 people in September 2013. And it occurred almost exactly a year after bombings at a Lahore church left at least 15 people dead last March.

But while the Easter bombing is a stark reminder of the vulnerability of Pakistani Christians, the country’s reaction to it has provided a notable contrast to the attacks of years past -- and its timing presents Pakistan with a critical opportunity to reshape its relationship with its religious minorities after decades of neglect.

Prior to Sunday evening’s attack, Pakistan’s relationship with its religious minorities was in a position of rare promise and cautious optimism. For the first time, the Hindu celebration of Holi was declared a public holiday in Sindh province earlier this month, just days after Pakistan’s National Assembly passed an unprecedented resolution to declare Easter, Holi, and Diwali official holidays -- significant symbolic victories for minorities. In February, Hindu couples finally achieved the right to register their marriages officially after decades of frustration and discrimination. And on Feb. 29, the government ignored the protests of ultra-religious Muslim hardliners to carry out the execution of Mumtaz Qadri, the bodyguard-turned-assassin who killed the governor of Punjab in January 2011 for his criticism of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, which have been used to harass and intimidate Christians for years.

The March 27 bombing in Lahore was, in many ways, a grim déjà vu for Pakistan’s Christian community, as a suicide bomber belonging to a Taliban splinter group targeted families celebrating Easter in a city park. The attack, which left over 70 dead, including both Muslims and Christians, was the deadliest assault on Christians in Pakistan since the twin suicide bombings at All Saints Church in Peshawar that killed more than 80 people in September 2013. And it occurred almost exactly a year after bombings at a Lahore church left at least 15 people dead last March.

But while the Easter bombing is a stark reminder of the vulnerability of Pakistani Christians, the country’s reaction to it has provided a notable contrast to the attacks of years past — and its timing presents Pakistan with a critical opportunity to reshape its relationship with its religious minorities after decades of neglect.

Prior to Sunday evening’s attack, Pakistan’s relationship with its religious minorities was in a position of rare promise and cautious optimism. For the first time, the Hindu celebration of Holi was declared a public holiday in Sindh province earlier this month, just days after Pakistan’s National Assembly passed an unprecedented resolution to declare Easter, Holi, and Diwali official holidays — significant symbolic victories for minorities. In February, Hindu couples finally achieved the right to register their marriages officially after decades of frustration and discrimination. And on Feb. 29, the government ignored the protests of ultra-religious Muslim hardliners to carry out the execution of Mumtaz Qadri, the bodyguard-turned-assassin who killed the governor of Punjab in January 2011 for his criticism of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, which have been used to harass and intimidate Christians for years.

The Easter bombing has delivered a jarring notice to Pakistani society of the precariousness of those progressive steps. On the day of the bombing, thousands of religious hardliners demonstrating in protest of Qadri’s execution clashed with police in Islamabad. As the blowback to Islamabad’s support of religious minorities continues, it will be up to the government and Pakistani society to stand with its non-Muslim minority communities to uphold civil rights and confront the extremists who seek to destroy any element of religious diversity and coexistence in the country.

In targeting a city park full of families and children, the March 27 attack by the Pakistani Taliban’s Jamaat-ul-Ahrar faction displayed a brutality not seen since the Army Public School attacks in December 2014 that killed over 130 schoolchildren in Peshawar. That tragedy ignited a nationwide outpouring of grief and outrage, spurring Pakistan to renew and intensify its efforts at stopping terrorism within the country. The government and military launched an unprecedented crackdown on extremism over the following year, leading to a 56 percent decline in terrorist incidents from 2014 to 2015, and the lowest numbers of terrorist attacks and casualties since 2006, per the Center for Research and Security Studies. Indeed, despite over a decade of violence, Pakistan appeared to at last be winning its war against terror.

Pakistan’s ability to match that response in the wake of Sunday’s bombing — not only in terms of its military action against extremists, but also in defending civil rights and collectively sharing the same grief for its Christians as it does for Muslim victims — could redefine its relationship with minority religious communities for years to come.

So far, the signs are encouraging. Local reports describe people flocking to hospitals in Lahore to donate blood, food, clothing, and gifts. The Army said on Monday that it executed raids throughout Punjab against groups with extremist links, reportedly leading to several arrests. In any case, the aftermath is already a far cry from the response to the 2013 and 2015 attacks on Christian communities, which led to tire-burning demonstrations from Christians across the country in protest of what they called the inaction and neglect of the government to properly protect them from violence.

By mourning the Christian children killed in Lahore with the same heartbreak that met the Peshawar tragedy — and by pursuing accountability for the planners of these attacks with equal determination — Pakistan can reshape the narrative of its treatment of religious minorities. By confronting the forces of violent bigotry within its borders with clear eyes, Pakistan can demonstrate that the lives of its Christians matter. And in the process, it can show to the West what many in the country have tried to express countless times before: that the tremendous pain caused by violent extremists is shared by all of the country’s religious communities — Muslims, Christians, Hindus, and others — together.

ARIF ALI/AFP/Getty Images

Mustafa Hameed is a journalist based in New York. Follow him on Twitter: @MustafaHameed.

More from Foreign Policy

A worker cuts the nose off the last Ukraine's Tupolev-22M3, the Soviet-made strategic aircraft able to carry nuclear weapons at a military base in Poltava, Ukraine on Jan. 27, 2006. A total of 60 aircraft were destroyed  according to the USA-Ukrainian disarmament agreement.
A worker cuts the nose off the last Ukraine's Tupolev-22M3, the Soviet-made strategic aircraft able to carry nuclear weapons at a military base in Poltava, Ukraine on Jan. 27, 2006. A total of 60 aircraft were destroyed according to the USA-Ukrainian disarmament agreement.

Why Do People Hate Realism So Much?

The school of thought doesn’t explain everything—but its proponents foresaw the potential for conflict over Ukraine long before it erupted.

Employees watch a cargo ship at a port in China, which is experiencing an economic downturn.
Employees watch a cargo ship at a port in China, which is experiencing an economic downturn.

China’s Crisis of Confidence

What if, instead of being a competitor, China can no longer afford to compete at all?

Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell testifies in the U.S. Senate in Washington on Sept. 24, 2020.
Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell testifies in the U.S. Senate in Washington on Sept. 24, 2020.

Why This Global Economic Crisis Is Different

This is the first time since World War II that there may be no cooperative way out.

Chinese President Xi Jinping (left) and Premier Li Keqiang applaud at the closing session of the National People's Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on March 11.
Chinese President Xi Jinping (left) and Premier Li Keqiang applaud at the closing session of the National People's Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on March 11.

China Is Hardening Itself for Economic War

Beijing is trying to close economic vulnerabilities out of fear of U.S. containment.