IT should have been just another Sunday service at the All Saints Church in Peshawar a year ago. As it turned out, it was the prelude to a massacre, the worst attack against the Christian community in Pakistan, when twin suicide bombings at the end of the service claimed around 90 lives and injured over 100 people.
The carnage sparked a wave of revulsion among Pakistanis, and expressions of solidarity with the community were swift in coming. Although attacks on such scale along religious lines have not occurred since then, the war on minorities in this country grinds on relentlessly.
In fact, it could be said that it is expanding, claiming yet more victims and also from communities hitherto left comparatively unscathed by religious extremism.
In Peshawar itself, the small Sikh community has been repeatedly targeted this year. Five Sikhs have been killed in as many months, with two fatalities in the first week of September alone. In a remote corner of Balochistan, armed men attacked a group of Zikris in their place of worship, killing six and injuring several others. Although persecution of the Zikris — a little-known Islamic sect — had surfaced during Gen Zia’s time, when religious extremism was actively harnessed and patronised to further strategic objectives, this was the first direct attack in more than two decades on their lives.
Meanwhile, a reprehensible conspiracy of silence by the state surrounds the murder of Ahmadis — whose persecution is institutionalised in Pakistan — even when a woman and two girls from that community were killed in a ghastly mob attack in July.
The crux of the problem is the state’s refusal to take proactive steps to control the menace of religious extremism: banned/extremist organisations extend their influence to areas so far untouched by communal strife; hate speech is freely disseminated; the blasphemy law is used as a tool of persecution; school curricula contain derogatory references to minority communities. While the government continues in a state of torpor, this fire has begun to consume the very foundations of the country.