Easter attack in Pakistan shows how poor civilians remain the easiest targets

Imran Masih spends his days behind concrete walls, tending the gardens of well-to-do families. In the past, he would often return to his small, stifling apartment to find the power out and his eldest son Junaid studying by the light of a cellphone.

"He had a dream to do something for his family," Masih said, "to get a good job so we could build a proper house."

After the Christian family attended church services on Easter Sunday, Junaid, 16, borrowed a few dollars and went to a park in west Lahore that was popular for its artificial lake and carnival games. He and an uncle were standing near the swings when a suicide bomb exploded, killing them and 73 others, and wounding hundreds more.

A faction of the Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility for the blast and said it targeted Christians, a working-class minority that is believed to make up 8% to 10% of Lahore's population but accounted for nearly one-third of the deaths.

Yet in the weeks since the March 27 attack — the deadliest in Pakistan since 2014 — many Christian families have refused to shoulder victimhood alone. They point out that most of those killed and wounded were Muslims who, like them, hail from the poorer sections of Lahore and were spending a Sunday evening in one of the few public spaces available to the underprivileged.

"Poor people don't have big houses, so they have to go to parks to enjoy themselves," Masih said. "And they have to work day and night, so their only free time is during holidays.

"Therefore we cannot say the attack was against Christians. It was against the Pakistani nation."

The bombing offered a dismal reminder that even though a military crackdown has sharply reduced Islamist violence in Pakistan over the last two years, civilians continue to represent soft targets.

Lahore, a thriving commercial city of 9 million, has long been famed for its gardens and wide boulevards. Concrete walls and razor wire now envelop government buildings, private schools and five-star hotels. But as in many Pakistani cities, parks, markets, buses and other gathering places for the underclass remain exposed.

Pakistan's privileged can "barricade themselves from insecurity, entertaining themselves behind gates and guards," Madiha Afzal, an assistant professor at the University of Maryland's School of Public Policy, wrote in a recent commentary.

"The children of the elite play in heavily guarded, expensive indoor play areas. As terrorism rose in Pakistan over the last decade, security has become a commodity that only the rich can afford."

More than 60,000 people have been killed in terrorism-related violence in Pakistan since 2003 — one-third of them civilians, according to the South Asia Terrorism Portal. Christians have been on higher alert in Lahore since March 2015, when 15 people were killed in coordinated bombings at two churches in the Youhanabad neighborhood.

This Easter, there was heavier security at churches, which some believe made the Gulshan-e-Iqbal park a more inviting target.

Junaid attended services that afternoon with his uncle Salamat Yousaf, who at 22 was just a few years older and felt more like a big brother. Afterward he called his father and said they were going to relax somewhere.

"He studied all the time. After school he went to a tutor. Only occasionally he went out or went to the park," Masih said. He cradled a framed photo of his son, fair-skinned with a long sweep of hair, and held back tears.

"Everyone is at risk. Anyone who goes out of their house doesn't know if he will come back."

Christians are believed to be the largest religious minority in overwhelmingly Muslim Pakistan, although the country hasn't conducted a formal census in nearly two decades. Many poor Hindus in what is now Pakistan converted to Christianity in the 19th century to escape discrimination under the caste system. Yet thousands of Christians in Lahore still are relegated to menial jobs, such as cleaning gutters, and are stereotyped as dirty.

They and other minorities have been targeted not just by Islamist extremists but also by the state under controversial anti-blasphemy laws. In its most recent report, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom said the Pakistani government "continued to perpetrate and tolerate systematic, ongoing and egregious religious freedom violations."

Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, a breakaway faction of the Pakistani Taliban, said it carried out both the church bombings and the Easter attack. The group's claim of targeting Christians "magnifies the impact" of the attacks "but doesn't dilute the fact that the whole of Pakistan faces the consequences," said Peter Jacob, executive director of the Center for Social Justice, an advocacy group.

James Paul, a 49-year-old laborer in south Lahore, is a Christian who believes that Islamist militants "want to create civil war between Christians and Muslims."

Paul's two eldest sons were at the park the evening of the blast: Noman, 19, a hairstylist, and Asher, 18, who works at a tobacco shop. Their earnings had paid most of the family's bills since Paul's health had begun to deteriorate, and after Easter services they wanted to hang out with friends.

"You can't keep boys at home all the time," Paul said. "They get frustrated. No matter the security situation, they need to go out."

The brothers walked past the swings and were leaving the park, singing and messing around with their group, when Asher noticed Noman had fallen a few steps behind. Then the explosion knocked Asher off his feet.

When he regained his balance he saw that his brother was lying motionless on the ground, his head and torso badly bloodied.

Asher ran over and cradled Noman's head. He was still breathing. Asher called for help to a crowd that had gathered, some taking photos in the chaos, but no one came.

"He took his last breath in my lap," Asher said.

Now the slender boy, thrust into the role of family breadwinner, struggles with fear. If he sees more than three or four men huddled together in the dirt lanes outside their home, he panics.

Paul folded his calloused fingers and stared at the ground. "Poor people suffer the most in this war," he said.

shashank.bengali@latimes.com

Copyright © 2017, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on May 09, 2016, in the News section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Pakistani Christians live in fear - Easter attack shows how poor civilians of any faith remain the easiest targets for terrorist groups." — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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