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Tackling religious intolerance and violence in Pakistan

By Saima Mohsin, CNN
September 24, 2013 -- Updated 0848 GMT (1648 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Church bombing that killed 86 highlights intolerance minorities face in Pakistan
  • A splinter group of Pakistan Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack
  • Christians not only target -- Shia muslims and Ahmadis also persecuted
  • Attack denounced by the main Pakistan Taliban group

Islamabad, Pakistan (CNN) -- All Saints Church was designed to look like a mosque -- to symbolize unity amidst a community of many religions. Completed in 1883, it was built within the old walled city of Peshawar during a century of relative peace and harmony.

But the weekend bombing of the historic church has yet again highlighted the intolerance, lack of security and carnage today's Pakistanis face. These are challenges successive governments have failed to address and deal with decisively.

A splinter group of the militant Islamist Pakistan Taliban claimed responsibility for the church attack that left 86 people dead, more than 120 injured and hundreds of lives shattered.

"This is the deadliest attack on a church and the Christian community in Pakistan's history," said Human Rights Watch country representative Ali Dayan Hasan.

Read more: Suicide bombers kill dozens at church

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Included among the dead were women and children, members of the church choir and "Sunday school students -- aged between just 4 and 8 years old," according to the Bishop of Peshawar, Humphrey S. Peters.

He has called for restraint as grief, shock, and outrage sparked protests in Pakistan's major cities and Christian dominated areas.

More deadly

Attacks against minority groups in Pakistan are on the rise. Each year is becoming more deadly than the last according to human rights groups, which have been keeping tally on the startling statistics.

The white strip on Pakistan's flag represents the country's minorities. Digitally altered pictures of that white strip splattered in blood are now being shared on social media sites as the public shows its disgust at Sunday's attack.

Pakistan's Christians account for around 1.5% of the country's mainly Muslim population. Persecution of the minority in the past has largely been linked to a controversial blasphemy law, which allows anyone to accuse a person of insulting religion, without having to produce evidence. The law has often been abused to target minorities, settle vendettas and personal disputes.

Read more: Pakistan's blasphemy laws

In March 2013, more than 100 homes were burned down in a Christian colony in Lahore following the arrest of Sawan Masih, a Christian in his 20s who was accused of blasphemy. In August 2009, six people were killed in the Gojra riots. Fighting broke out in the majority Christian area after the alleged desecration of pages of the Quran. And in October 2001, 16 people died in Bahawalpur when gunmen burst into a church, spraying the congregation with bullets. Among the dead were the church minister and a Muslim police officer who had been guarding the church.

Muslim minorities

Christians are not the only minority to be targeted. Pakistan is a majority Sunni Muslim country and sectarian attacks against its Shia Muslims have included several bombings that left hundreds dead. The country's Ahmadi community -- a breakaway sect of Muslims declared non-Muslims for their religious beliefs -- have long been persecuted.

Terrorists have targeted people in places of worship across the country -- Shia imambargahs, Sufi shrines and Sunni mosques have been bombed or attacked by gunmen.

Read more: Islamic sect has appealing message for U.S. but global enemies

But religion was not cited as the reason for last weekend's attack on the All Saints Church. The Pakistan Taliban splinter group TTP-Jandullah claimed responsibility. Its spokesman, Ahmed Marwat, told CNN: "Until and unless drone strikes are stopped, we will continue to strike wherever we will find an opportunity against non-Muslims."

The attack was denounced by the main Pakistan Taliban group, known as Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, or TTP, which has strong links to al-Qaeda and has claimed responsibility for a long list of assaults on civilians and the military in the country's mostly ungoverned tribal area along the Afghan border.

The suicide bombing has sparked protests across Pakistan
The suicide bombing has sparked protests across Pakistan

"We refuse to take responsibility for the church blast," TTP spokesman Shahidullah Shahid told CNN.

He says the attack was "an attempt to sabotage peace talks between the TTP and the government."

Splinter groups

Pakistan's government, led by the PML-N party under Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, won unanimous backing at an All Party Conference a few weeks ago to enter into talks with the TTP.

Read more: Who are the Pakistani Taliban?

The TTP has been behind the majority of attacks in Pakistan. But it is not the only Taliban group and does not speak for every violent extremist group operating out of the tribal areas.

Experts say there could be as many as 40 splinter groups, divided by religious and tribal affiliations. This begs the question then, who is Pakistan's government actually talking to? If it's only dealing with the TTP, then will talks really be a step on the road to lasting peace?

TTP-Jandullah's claim of responsibility for the church bombing and the TTP's distancing of itself from the attack demonstrates how divided these groups are.

Because they lack a shared voice, agenda or leader, it is hard to see how any government agreement reached with just one group will stop such attacks.

Peace process

Attempts at peace in the past have failed. The Pakistan Taliban have focused their wrath on innocent people in tribal areas.

Public hangings and beheadings, bombings of girls' schools and brutal self-styled justice has been imposed even as they talked of peace.

Most peace plans eventually collapsed and led to military operations -- in Waziristan and in the Swat Valley in 2009. A quarter of a million people fled the area, many of them still living in camps today. Others have been scarred forever physically and mentally, both by the Taliban and the military clampdown.

The government has many major challenges to face. But first it must come up with a long promised national security plan, once again promised by the interior minister in the wake of the All Saints Church bombing.

The government also has to provide what protestors and those too scared to leave their homes are demanding -- their basic right to protection from the state.

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