Pakistani Christians celebrate Christmas under heavy security

Islamabad: Pakistani Christians were celebrating Christmas Eve on Sunday with mass and processions under heavy security, amid fear and challenge of extremists, following a recent attack at a church killing nine people and injuring 57 in the western part of the country.

The Christian community, made up of only two percent of the 207 million inhabitants of the Muslim majority country, has been preparing for the festivities with the hope that there would be no repeat of the attack that happened on December 17 in Quetta.

“The people are scared, but we have faith and tonight we will hold the Christmas mass at our church,” Simon Bashir, priest of the Methodist Bethel Memorial parish church in Quetta, told Efe.

Bashir said they held mass mid-morning at the church that was recently attacked, after some provisional arrangements, such as removing the blood stains and having some 30 members of the security forces around the building.

Around 200 faithful came to the church in a ceremony, marked by sadness over the fresh memory of the suicide attack a week ago.

While resuming with the mass, the Bethel Memorial church decided to cancel the traditional feasting that comes with the celebrations, in memory of those who lost their lives in the attack, claimed by the Islamic State.

The Christian community in Pakistan is often the target of terrorist attacks and violence, along with the Shia and Sufi Muslims.

During Easter in March 2016, a Taliban faction carried out a suicide attack targeting Christians at a children’s park in Lahore, in which 73 people died.

The worst episode of violence towards the Christian community occurred in 2013, when an attack on a church in Peshawar (northwest) claimed 82 lives.

Catechist Angelo Javed from the Christian neighbourhood of Youhanabad in Lahore told EFE that they will hold the festivities as usual, with some 2,000 people taking part in a procession Sunday night and three prayers on Monday.

“We are not scared. The community is brave and we will celebrate,” said Javed, adding that in Youhanabad, one of the major Christian neighbourhoods in the country, volunteer groups will take part in the security checks on people and cars entering the area.

Moreover, the government has deployed policemen in the major Christian neighbourhoods across the country.

Hundreds of troops have been deployed around the 29 churches in Balochistan province – whose capital is Quetta -, provincial government spokesperson Anwar ul Haq Kakar told Efe.

Cecil Shane Chaudhry, spokesperson of the National Commission for Justice and Peace, a rights based organization of the Pakistan Catholic Bishops’ Conference, confirmed to Efe that security measures have been bolstered around major churches in the country this Christmas over fear of attack.

The Christian community hope that the celebrations will not be hampered by security concerns.

“We are a resilient community. Today we have held masses at midday with a large number of people attending and tonight we will hold the Christmas mass,” Shane said.