Sandy Sneddon writes about his visit to Pakistan in the aftermath of the Easter Day bomb attack in Lahore
On 23 March I was delighted to be invited to attend a ceremony at the Pakistan Consulate in Glasgow to mark Pakistan Day. This commemorates the Lahore Resolution that called for an independent federation of Muslim majority provinces in British-ruled India. Speeches from President Mamnoon Hussain and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif were read out and the Consul General spoke of the strong links between Scotland and Pakistan, the contribution people from Pakistan have made to Scotland and Pakistan’s fight against extremism.
Four days later on Easter Day a suicide bomber killed at least 74 people including at least 42 Christians and injured 300 more, mainly women and children, in a public park in Lahore. Pakistani Taliban’s Jamat-ul-Ahrar faction claimed responsibility for the attack saying they deliberately targeted Christians who were celebrating Easter.
Gulshan-e-Iqbal Park joins a list that includes All Saints Church and Army Public School in Peshawar, St John Catholic Church and Christ Church in Youhanabad, Bacha Khan University, Charsadda as just some of the places where Taliban suicide bombers have attacked and killed scores of people in recent years.
Along with two colleagues I was due to travel to Pakistan on Monday 28 March. After confirming with our partner church that we would still be welcome we arrived early Tuesday. A visit originally planned to focus on Church of Scotland property issues quickly changed to a visit showing solidarity and pastoral support for our partners and the Christian community.
When we arrived in Lahore we met the Moderator of the Church of Pakistan Synod, Rt Rev Samuel Azariah. He had already visited survivors in hospital and was organising meetings with church and Muslim leaders. He called on people to go beyond statements that condemned extremist violence and take concrete action to end the violence.
Later we met with a senior Muslim cleric, Maulana Tahir-ul-Ashrafi. A former Taliban fighter in Afghanistan he told how his experience of being treated with respect by Christians situations led him to re-read the Quran and discover there was no basis for discrimination against Christians in Islam. This changed him from being strongly anti-Christian to becoming a leading proponent of inter-sect and interfaith peace and harmony.
The Church of Scotland has supported the Church of Pakistan’s campaign against the misuse of the Blasphemy Law for a number of years and we also support the Centre for Legal Aid, Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS) which operates in Pakistan and Britain. Churches and Christian NGOs established CLAAS in 1992 to be a place where Christians could come for legal aid and support when accused in blasphemy or other cases and to have shelter from their persecutors. We visited the offices and met staff including lawyers and activists. We also visited Apna Ghar (“Our House”), a shelter for victims of the misuse of the Blasphemy Law and forced conversions. We met four young women who were currently residents and who were being rehabilitated after suffering rape or abduction. The staff were interested to hear about WMC’s report and Bible Studies on Gender Based Violence, an issue they have been researching as part of a USAID project.
We attended Sunday worship at Salman Memorial Church, Ugoki outside Sialkot where Iain Cunningham, Convener of the World Mission Council, preached on the Road to Emmaus linking the grief and confusion of Cleopas and his companion to that of Christians in Pakistan following the terror attack a week earlier. We returned to Lahore when Iain, myself and Dr Caroline Carson from the Episcopal Church USA joined over 200 Christians as well as Muslims and Hindus prayed for peace at Gulshan-e-Iqbal Park. It was a sombre yet defiant occasion that included us singing Psalm 20, “May the Lord answer you when you are in distress; may the name of the God of Jacob protect you.”
In our final conversation Bishop Azariah asked us to consider how the Church in the West can show solidarity in this time of crisis with the churches in Pakistan. Christians and Muslims must listen and learn from each other so we can combat extremism and terrorist violence. We need to ask our government what is doing to ensure that human rights are observed in Pakistan so that people from all communities can live their lives to the full. The authorities in Pakistan must do more protect its citizens from terror attacks. And we must pray for the families of those killed in the park, pray for the injured to be healed and give thanks for the Christian community in Pakistan, for their faithfulness in the face of extremist violence.
Chillingly a Pakistan Taliban spokesman said this week that they are planning “more devastating attacks that will target Christians and other religious minorities as well as government installations.”
On Pakistan’s Blasphemy Law http://www.claas.org.uk/blasphemy-laws/
Purifying The Land of the Pure: Pakistan’s Religious Minorities by Farahnaz Ispahani (Harper Collins, 2015)
Church of Scotland report on Gender Based Violence http://www.churchofscotland.org.uk/serve/world_mission/reports_and_resources/gender_based_violence