Friday, September 27, 2013

Sense of fear and uncertainty as Peshawar toll crosses 80

A lone policeman with a submachine gun is on guard outside St. Thomas church, one of the two big churches in the city. Its huge maroon gates with golden crosses are firmly shut but you can see the large red brick building through the fir trees. Built in 1992 the church had installed CCTV cameras a few months ago for safety. A couple of policemen on a motorcycle occasionally patrol the road.

A parish member and retired government employee, Iqbal (name changed), is wary as he talks outside. The church had asked for increased security in the past and on Sunday there are usually two or three policemen. But he looks up and says, "We leave security to God." He has a special connection with All Saints Church which was the target of a twin suicide bombing in Peshawar on Sunday. His nikah ceremony was performed there in 1978.

Soon after the incident he got in touch with his old Bible study coordinator in Peshawar who lost his wife and daughter. "My wife's uncle broke his leg while he ran for his life and my wife's cousins are in hospital," he says. A shocked Iqbal could only cry as he tried to take in the bombing which has shaken the nation and particularly the minorities.

At the Roman Catholic Our Lady of Fatima church, built in 1979, Father Rahmat Michael Hakim discusses security with a senior officer and reminds him gently that Sunday mass begins at 7 a.m. Outside, again a Kalashnikov-wielding policeman lounges in a chair. There are 4,000 Catholic families in the Islamabad Capital Territory, Fr. Hakim says. The Islamabad Rawalpindi diocese has about two lakh Christians. "First they attacked mosques, now it's the churches. Everyone is saddened by the bombing and there is a great sense of fear and insecurity. We are also planning to install CCTVs but for now the razor wire fencing will have to do," he adds.

Minority rights activist Joseph Francis told The Hindu on the phone from Peshawar that "these attacks were making Christians helpless and forcing us to leave this country. We don't have any security." Speaking after visiting the church and the hospital, he said about 20 to 25 people were missing and while many body parts were found, identification was impossible. He said the church had suffered some damage but the building was intact. Peshawar was tense with protests and what was worrying was the inability of the Lady Reading hospital to handle burns victims, many of them women and children. They had blisters all over and there were only six beds for burns patients, he added.

While the government's proposed talks with the Pakistan Taliban has not materialised, a faction has claimed responsibility for the attacks. The death toll crossed 80 on Monday. The national flag flew at half mast and there were protests in many parts of Pakistan. In Islamabad too, nearly 2,000 people marched shouting slogans against the Taliban and demanding justice.

Candles were lit at D chowk, near the National Assembly, Pakistan's Parliament, and religious and political leaders said it was a mourning (matham) for those who were "martyred" in the bombing and not a protest. Farida Choudhry, a nurse, and her young son who had come carrying placards said there should no religious discrimination and that terrorism should end.

Many women from the Christian-dominated colonies joined the protest beating their chests in sorrow. Mumtaz from Faraz Colony can barely hide her tears. "Sunday is a day entire families go to church and in Peshawar many members of a single family died. We are scared now and we can't imagine this happening to us," she says.
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