LAHORE, Pakistan (CNS) — The daylight attack by motorcycle-riding gunmen on two Church of Pakistan ministers, killing one and wounding another, has reignited fears among Pakistan’s beleaguered minority community.
The priests were attacked as they drove home from a service in the northwestern city of Peshawar Jan. 30. Assistant lay Pastor William Siraj died while the Rev. Patrick Naeem lived, reported ucanews.com.
“The bullets scratched my body. They (the gunmen) wore a shawl, I couldn’t recognize them. It was a planned attack,” recalled the Church of Pakistan pastor in a video message recorded later.
“I thank God for saving me to share his witness. He gives martyrdom and life. Our churches will never get closed. We will continue worshipping. We need your prayers,” he appealed to the faithful.
Rev. Naeem recited the Bible at Siraj’s funeral at All Saints Church. Catholic priests of Peshawar joined the mourners. Church-run schools remained closed around the capital city of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.
“This martyrdom is another step toward survival of Christians in this country. The local church faces many challenges. We are very sad,” said Church of Pakistan Bishop Humphrey Sarfaraz Peters of Peshawar.
In a news conference, Tahir Ashrafi, special representative on religious affairs to Prime Minister Imran Khan, sought to assure Pakistan’s Christians that the prime minister was personally overseeing the matter, calling it “an attack on Pakistan.”
“This isn’t an issue of one community or a pastor. It is an attempt to spread fear and defame the country. Blood in churches, mosques and sacrifices of our soldiers led to peace,” he said.
Christian activists were not convinced.
“This is an eyewash. The nation is tired of condemnations. We demand arrest of the murderers and their punishment,” said Samson Salamat, chairman of Rwadari Tehreek, a social movement emphasizing the importance of religious tolerance in a multireligious society.
Human rights lawyer Nadeem Anthony called the news conference a political stunt. “The cleric is trying to mislead the ongoing investigation. They (government officials) are trying to escape the responsibility of protecting the innocent and vulnerable community,” he told ucanews.com.
“It is a pity that the new year started with this heinous hate attack. The country has been hijacked by Islamists who want Islamization in the country and are openly propagating faith-based hatred,” Anthony said.
Hina Jilani, chairwoman of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, called the incident “a blatant assault not only on Pakistan’s Christian community but on all religious minorities whose right to life and security of person remains under constant threat.”
She said she was particularly concerned with the signs of growing radicalization across the country and feared the relegation of religious minorities to the margins even as violence against them continued with impunity.
“It has been eight years since the Supreme Court judgment handed down by Justice Tassaduq Jillani in 2014 laid down concrete measures for the state to protect the rights of religious minorities. More than ever, the ethos of this judgment must be understood and pursued by all arms of the state — which includes promptly investigating and prosecuting perpetrators of violence against religious minorities — if Pakistan is to roll back the damage done by the rise of the far right,” Jilani stated in a statement.
Church leaders and foreign envoys flooded social media to express solidarity with the Christians of Pakistan.
“As we mark Candlemas today, we pray for the light of Christ’s justice, hope and peace for our sisters and brothers in the Church of Pakistan,” Anglican Archbishop Justin Welby of Canterbury said in a tweet.
“The tragic death of Pastor William Siraj and wounding of Rev. Patrick Naeem yesterday in #Peshawar is a call to action against hate, and a reminder of the need for religious tolerance and #FreedomofBelief,” tweeted Wendy Gilmour, Canada’s high commissioner, or ambassador, to Pakistan.