The deadly Easter Sunday attack by a suicide bomber in Pakistan has sent fears soaring of an expanding war on Christianity globally, even as the radical Islamic group behind the strike warned that more assaults on believers were in the works.
“We carried out the Lahore attack as Christians are our target,” Ehsanullah Ehsan, spokesman for Taliban faction Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, told Agence Press-France by telephone on Monday, adding that additional attacks on schools and colleges are planned.
Andrew T. Walther, vice president of communications for the Knights of Columbus, which has warned of a “genocide” targeting Christian communities in the Islamic world, said the slaughter of adults and children during the Easter celebration “highlights that Christians, especially in countries where they are a small minority, are often targeted.”
“And, as a whole, Christians are the most persecuted religious group in today’s world,” said Mr. Walther, citing a recent Pew Research Center study examining violence targeting religious groups.
The White House and State Department came under fire Monday for failing to mention in statements condemning the Pakistan violence that the victims gathered at the park in Lahore, Pakistan, were singled out for their Christian faith, drawing a fresh round of criticism.
“This was a very targeted attack of a known Christian population, and of course it was Easter Sunday,” said Jay Sekulow, chief counsel of American Center for Law and Justice, which operates an office in Lahore.
“I’m very disappointed that the State Department not only did not call it Islamic jihadism, but would not acknowledge that this was a targeted attack against Christians, which the perpetrators have acknowledged,” Mr. Sekulow said. “I think we’ve got to start saying exactly what this is.”
In Pakistan the army launched raids Monday and rounded up suspects in Lahore and other major cities in the Punjab province, including Faisalabad and Multan. An army spokesman said on Twitter that a number of suspected “terrorists and facilitators” were arrested, and that a “huge cache of arms and ammunition” was recovered.
“Terrorists cannot dent our resolve. Our struggle will continue until the complete elimination of the menace of terrorism,” said Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in an emotional televised address.
While the attack was aimed at members of Pakistan’s tiny Christian minority, who make up just 1.6 percent of the population, a large number of the victims were Muslim, according to Pakistani authorities.
Pope Francis, who has championed Christians in the Middle East and elsewhere persecuted by Islamic extremists, denounced the attack Monday as a “cowardly and senseless crime” and called on authorities to protect “in particular, the most vulnerable religious minorities.”
“Easter Sunday was bloodied by an abominable attack that massacred so many innocent people, for the most part families of the Christian minority, especially women and children, gathered in a public park to joyfully pass the Easter holiday,” the pope told those gathered in St. Peter’s Square.
The Obama administration’s reluctance to condemn specifically the targeting of Pakistani Christians comes a week after Secretary of State John F. Kerry drew cheers from religious liberty groups by declaring that Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL, “is responsible for genocide against groups in areas under its control, including Yazidis, Christians and Shia Muslims.”
In a statement Monday, however, State Department spokesman John Kirby condemned the “appalling attack” that “targeted innocent civilians in the Gulshan-e-Iqbal Park,” but failed to mention the connection between the attack by Islamic extremists and Easter celebrations.
Former Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson said Monday he was dumbfounded by the omission.
“This is craziness that we simply refuse to acknowledge it and allow it to continue to grow,” said Mr. Carson on “Fox & Friends.” “You know, I can’t really explain why our administration goes out of its way not to include the fact that Christians are being persecuted, but of course this has implications for our country too in the future.”
Not playing the ‘Christian card’
John L. Allen Jr., author of “The Global War on Christians,” said he understood the reluctance of world leaders to “play the Christian card in some of these situations.”
“The calculation is that sometimes, doing so could make matters worse rather than better. That is, it might put other Christians at risk,” he said. “I understand the argument for discretion, but that said, I also understand the argument for calling things by their real name.”
“Particularly in the Middle East these days, and especially in territories under ISIS control, I think we’re in a situation where we no longer have to worry about making things worse, because really they have become about as bad as they could possibly be,” said Mr. Allen, who operates the Catholic news website Crux.
A February 2015 Pew report found that Christians remain the most persecuted religion as measured by the number of countries in which they face harassment. Christians faced discrimination — and worse — in 102 of 198 countries studied, while Muslims were harassed in 99 of the 198, according to data from 2013.
Since then, however, analysts say persecution of Christians has climbed as they are publicly targeted by Islamic terrorists, particularly in the Middle East. Six months ago in Syria, for example, Islamic State beheaded 12 Christians, including a 12-year-old boy, then hung them on crosses, according to Christian Aid Mission.
The Easter attack was the third mass attack on Christians in Pakistan in the last three years. A year ago, more than 30 Christians died at the hands of a suicide bomber in Lahore, while more than 100 were killed at a Peshawar church in 2013.
Wilson Chowdhry, the chairman of the British Pakistani Christian Association, described the attack as “a clear targeting of Christians during their Easter celebrations.”
“Pakistan is not safe for Christians as there is a genocide taking place there,” Mr. Chowdhry said in a statement. “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.”
And Pakistan ranks only sixth on a list of countries compiled by Open Doors, a Christian activist group that monitors persecution, where Christians are at risk, behind North Korea, Iraq, Eritrea, Afghanistan and Syria.
Pakistan’s nearly 4 million Christians “feel increasingly under threat in their daily lives,” according to the Open Doors survey. “The persecution of religious minorities is in effect enabled rather than deterred by the state.”
An estimated two-thirds of the Christian population has fled Syria since 2011, while the number of Iraqi Christians has plummeted from an estimated 1.5 million in 2003 to as few as 200,000, fueling a refugee crisis as Christians flee the region. Some Christian leaders in the region fear that faith communities dating back virtually to the days of Jesus are in danger of being wiped out if trends continue.
Mr. Sekulow described the Pakistan suicide bombing as “an intentional move by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi,” the leader of Islamic State.
“I mean, this is what he wants to do. He’s encouraging targeted attacks on Christians,” said Mr. Sekulow. “They knew this was a Christian population, they knew that park was frequented by Christians, they knew it was Easter.”
He compared it to reports that Tom Uzhunnalil of India, a Catholic priest abducted by militants last month in southern Yemen, had been crucified on Good Friday. It remains unclear as to whether the priest was actually killed.
“It’s like the Catholic priest: They’re doing that because they want to make a point,” Mr. Sekulow said. “And they’re using methods, whether it’s bombing or crucifixion, that make an impact.”