Christians in Pakistan are facing genocide at the hands of Islamist extremists, human rights activists have claimed after a suicide bomb in a children’s park killed more than 70 people and injured hundreds of others.
The atrocity in Lahore on Easter Sunday was carried out by Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, an offshoot of the Taliban.
The stated targets of the bomber were Christian families celebrating Easter at a funfair at Gulshan-i-Iqbal Park.
The attack is the third massacre of Christians in Pakistan in under three years, coming after more than 100 worshippers at a Peshawar church were slaughtered in September 2013 and more than 30 other Christians were also killed by a bomber in Lahore in March last year.
Wilson Chowdhry, the chairman of the British Pakistani Christian Association, said the attack was further evidence of a campaign of genocide being waged against Christians in the majority Sunni Muslim country.
“Pakistan is not safe for Christians as there is a genocide taking place there,” he said. “Not a genocide that is state-sponsored in its entirety, but a genocide nevertheless.
“Unless Western governments wake up to this problem the death toll for Christians living there is set to rise exponentially.”
Mr Chowdhry said that the trigger for the attack was probably the execution last month of Mumtaz Qadri for the 2011 murder of Salman Taseer, a reformist politician who had argued for the repeal of blasphemy laws used to persecute Christians.
Mr Chowdhry said that hatred and intolerance of minorities in Pakistan was increasing and that “the majority” of Muslims in Pakistan now believed Qadri was a national hero and an Islamic martyr “for killing a man who stood for Christians and other minorities”.
A rally held in protest at the execution drew a crowd of 25,000 people on to the streets of Islamabad on Sunday. Some protesters fought with police, threw stones, lit fires and staged a sit-in demonstration outside the parliament buildings.
Lahore has the largest population of Christians of any city in Pakistan. Such minorities make up just 1.6 per cent of the country’s 190 million population.
On Easter Monday, Pope Francis expressed his “closeness to those affected by this cowardly and senseless crime”.
“Easter was bloodied by an execrable attack which massacred many innocent people, mostly families of the Christian minority – particularly women and children – who had gathered in a public park to spend the Easter holiday in joy,” the Holy Father told a crowd gathered in St Peter’s Square, Rome, for the Regina Caeli prayer.
“Once again, violence and heinous murder lead only to suffering and destruction,” the Pope said.
“I appeal to the civil authorities and to all the social constituents of this nation to do everything in their power to restore safety and serenity to the population, particularly the most vulnerable religious minorities.”
On Easter Sunday, the Vatican had described the bombing as “fanatical violence against Christian minorities”.