Thousands of Christians in Pakistan Gather to Remember the Youhanabad Church Bombings
Church Leaders Report Renewed Faith in Spite of Persecution and Insecurity
3/15/2016 Washington D.C. (International Christian Concern) – International Christian Concern (ICC) has learned that thousands of Christians in Pakistan gathered in the predominately Christian neighborhood of Youhanabad, located in the city of Lahore, to remember the first anniversary of the Youhanabad church bombings. Despite the tragedy inflicted upon this community, church leaders in Youhanabad report a renewed commitment to the Christian faith and growth in membership and attendance at both affected churches.
On March 15, 2015, at approximately 11:20 a.m., suicide bombers from Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, an offshoot of the Pakistan Taliban, attacked St. John’s Catholic Church and Christ Church where thousands of Christians were gathered for regular Sunday services. As a result, the bombers killed 21 and injured over 70 others. Causalities in both attacks were limited due to the heroic actions of Christian security volunteers who were able to keep the bombers from entering the church compounds before detonating their deadly payloads.
Following the attacks, thousands of Christians poured into the streets, protesting a lack of security provided to the Christian community by the government. The protest turned violent and two Muslims in police custody were lynched by the Christian mob. In the days and weeks that followed, police conducted a series of raids in Youhanabad, arresting over 100 Christian men in a search for those involved in the lynching of the two Muslims.
“It was a tragic day in the history of Christians in Pakistan,” Cecil Shane Chaudhry, Executive Director of the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace, told ICC. “The suicide bombers approached the two churches and tried to [get] into the compound. However, [they] were stopped by the [church security] volunteers and had to blow themselves up at the entrance gates.”
Among the security volunteers was Akash Bashir, age 20, who protected St. John’s Catholic Church by tackling and pinning down the suicide bomber before he was able to enter the church. “I am proud of giving birth to Akash,” Akash’s mother, Naz Bibi, told ICC. “He was the apple of my eye and very brave and obedient. I now love to be called Akash’s mother instead of Naz, my actual name.”
Thousands of Christians gathered in Youhanabad this weekend and today to remember the bombings and those who died one year ago. Fr. Francis Gulzar, head priest at St. John’s Catholic Church, told ICC, “[The] martyrdom of these innocent people has strengthened the community in their Christian faith and has caused an increase in the number of worshipers. The incident affected the psychology of the community, however, the community is gaining its confidence again which is encouraging.”
“We are not discouraged,” Archbishop Sebastian Francis Shaw told ICC at a ceremony remembering those killed in the bombings. “Thousands have come and all are very strong in their faith. We are now praying for peace in Pakistan.”
Despite the commitment and signs of healing shown by the Christian community in Youhanabad, church leaders also reported that they remain unsatisfied with security arrangements provided by the government. Rev. Dilshad Ashknaz, head pastor of Christ Church, told ICC, “We [must provide our] own security equipment and arrangements. I urge [the government] to provide adequate security for churches and Christians. Law enforcement must treat Christians as equal citizens.”
ICC’s Regional Manager for South Asia, William Stark, said, “It is amazing to see thousands of Christians gathering to remember those who were lost in last year’s church bombings. The faith and courage shown by the Christians in Youhanabad should serve as a reminder to the global Church of what true faith looks like. Over the past year, ICC has worked closely with the Christian community in Youhanabad to assist in the community’s recovery and ICC remains committed to serving these persecuted Christians. Unfortunately, Christians in Pakistan continue to be treated like an unwanted minority. Christians and their places of worship remain insecure and soft targets for religious extremists. Pakistan must do more to secure and help develop this highly persecuted minority community. Unless decisive action is taken, attacks on Christians and their places of worship will continue and Christianity in Pakistan could disappear altogether.”