Islamabad – As the sun set on the federal capital on Monday, slogans of protection for Pakistani Christians and justice for the victims of Sunday’s deadly attack on a Peshawar church tinged the September air with a profound sadness.
Several members of the Christian community stayed back at the D-Chowk on Monday evening to start a sit-in protest, after messages of interfaith unity and peace from Islamabad priests were followed by a call for an all-night protest by Julius Salik.
Salik, a Christian leader and former federal minister, had been conducting the hundreds of Christian protesters who had first gathered at the National Press Club in the afternoon and then moved to the D-Chowk.
The gathering also marked the culmination of a day when thousands of Christians in the twin cities took to the streets for the second consecutive day to demand better protection for religious minorities. On Sunday, in what is believed to be the worst attack on Pakistani Christians, two suicide bombers exploded outside the All Saints Church killing 83 people and injuring over 120.
From early morning on Monday, Christian protesters, including women and children, held protest rallies at different locations in Rawalpindi including Faizabad, Liaquat Bagh and Rawal Road.
At Faizabad, the protest turned violent when protesters burnt tyres and uprooted a billboard and set it on fire. Near the Zero Point interchange, there was a skirmish between police and Christians from G-7 as police tried to stop a rally from reaching the press club. “We are not here to listen to political speeches,” said some Christian youth as they burnt tyres near the D-Chowk too.
But the priests from different Islamabad churches emphasized the need to stay calm in the face of Sunday’s tragedy.
“We must not take the law into our own hands,” said Father Emmanuel Lorraine of the Church of Pakistan, after he had condemned the attack. “By remaining peaceful we can thwart the militants who are trying to sow seeds of hatred in the country.”
Father Rehmat Michael Hakim, the parish priest at Our Lady of Fatima Church in Islamabad, told The Express Tribune that he was hopeful the government will provide better security.
“No one, be it Muslims or Christians, has any assurance about their security because the militants do not respect anyone,” Hakim said. “But we are never going to abandon hope.”
Meanwhile, protesters said despite regular attacks on churches and Christian neighbourhoods, the government has taken no steps to ensure security.
“Those whose duty it is to protect us should resign immediately, whether it is the prime minister, chief minister or Army chief,” said 35-year-old Afzal Masih, a mechanic, at Faizabad.
Father Kamran Daniels, also of the Our Lady of Fatima Church, said since Sunday, the administration or police had not provided any significant security to the F-8 church.
Talking to The Express Tribune, Bishop of Saint Paul Church Samuel Titans said he is short of words to condemn the attack. “What kind of creatures are they (the militants)?” he asked.
He said the government should take steps for protection of our sacred places or allow us to make arrangements for our own protection. “We are humans, we are Pakistanis, sons and daughters of this soil so please live and let us live here peacefully,” he demanded.
Surrounded by a heavy police deployment, including policemen in riot gear, the protesters at D-Chowk demanded the government to arrest and punish the culprits of the Peshawar attack.
The Rawalpindi-Islamabad civil society also condemned the attack in a strongly-worded statement that denounced official plans for negotiations with terrorists. Civil society members also joined the Islamabad protest.
Shandana Khan, an Islamabad resident who held the English translation of a verse by Rehman Baba that promoted tolerance, said “the government has to become serious about this issue as it is the issue of the whole of Pakistan versus a few thousand terrorists.”
Tahira Abdullah, peace activist and human rights defender, said, “in Pakistan, there is a genocide of the Muslim and non-Muslim minorities especially Hazaras, Shias and Christians. It must stop. Enough is enough.”
“This is an attack for the 200 million Pakistanis. This business of spreading hate among people will continue until we form the Pakistan Quaid-e-Azam believed in: a secular Pakistan, where state and religion are separate and everyone has equal rights,” said Farzana Bari, a member of the Awami Workers Party.
National Commission on the Status of Women Chairperson Khawar Mumtaz urged the authorities to “make stringent arrangements to protect lives of its non-Muslim citizens, especially women, and to end the culture of violence, intolerance and impunity.”
At the National University of Modern Languages (NUML), staff and students led by Italian-language professor Javed Masih held a peaceful protest and Peter Jacob, of the National Commission on Justice and Peace, who is travelling abroad, issued a statement saying, “this colossal loss only strengthens our resolve that we would not leave the cause of the marginalized, who are vulnerable to tragedies as such. For us, it is a foregone conclusion that peace is the way to change.”
The city witnessed one of the worst-ever traffic jams during the protests as most of the main roads were blocked by protesters. Commuters also faced problems to reach their homes as public transport vans disappeared soon after the protests. Traffic warden diverted traffic to IJ Principal road and Peshawar Road to regulate the flow. The protesters at Faizabad dispersed peaceably around 7pm.