Religious freedom advocates have condemned the Easter Sunday bombing in Pakistan that killed more than 70, while insisting upon reform within the country to prevent future such attacks.
“We are horrified at this Easter attack, and the tragic loss of life,” Dr. Katrina Lantos Swett, commissioner at the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, told CNA.
“It’s truly heartbreaking, and our hearts and prayers go out to all of those affected, those who lost family members, had family members injured, and really to the entire Christian community in Pakistan who were the focus and target of this attack.”
She added that the attack “is emblematic of the very deep challenges that Pakistan faces when it comes to doing a much better job protecting religious freedom and very specifically protecting endangered religious minorities in Pakistan.”
A suicide bombing killed more than 70, including 29 children, at a public park in Lahore on Easter Sunday. Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, a Pakistani Taliban splinter group, claimed responsibility for the attack, saying their intent was to target Christians on Easter. While many of the victims were Christians, most of those who died were Muslims.
A spokesperson for the group said the bombing was “part of our annual martyrdom attacks,” according to Xinhua News Agency.
Pope Francis called the bombing “execrable” and “cowardly” in his Regina Coeli address at St. Peter’s Square on Easter Monday. He expressed his closeness to the victims and their families and called for prayers.
The U.S. State Department condemned the attacks on Sunday, saying such attacks “only deepen our shared resolve to defeat terrorism around the world, and we will continue to work with our partners in Pakistan and across the region to combat the threat of terrorism.”
Other groups strongly condemned the bombing. “These terrorists continue to show their cowardice, targeting women, children, and priests — unarmed, nonviolent, innocent civilians,” the advocacy group In Defense of Christians stated.
The attacks simply continue a bloody tradition of violence against Pakistani religious minorities, Swett noted.
“In our last report we call Pakistan out as really the worst religious freedom situation in the world for a country that is not currently designated by our State Department [as a Country of Particular Concern],” Swett said.
This situation exists largely because of two factors, she explained.
First, discrimination is “baked into” the country’s constitution, mainly to target minority Ahmadi Muslims who are considered non-Muslims by law. Consequently, this also “fuels a general climate and atmosphere in which extremism seems to thrive in Pakistan.”
Then when this extremism erupts in “chronic sectarian violence” against religious minorities such as Ahmadis, Hindus, Shia Muslims, and Christians, the government fails to protect these minorities and prosecute the perpetrators. This has “led to a climate of impunity,” she said, where the perpetrators of violence “flourish, and they feel like they will get away with these kinds of outrages.”
According to Reuters, the Pakistani government announced Monday that they would give the military authority to crack down on Islamist militants in the province where the attacks took place.
Although the government has recently pledged to take action to stop this violence — most notably after Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (the Pakistani Taliban) killed 145 at a school in December 2014 — Swett said it “remains to be seen” if they will actually take the necessary steps to do so.
The government may say the right things, she said, but when it comes to law enforcement, taking “swift and fair action through the court systems” against perpetrators of violence, and actually enforcing legal punishments, they may fail to do so.
In addition, the country’s notorious blasphemy laws must be reformed, she insisted. Pakistan has the most prisoners sentenced to death or life imprisonment from blasphemy convictions in the world, she noted, because existing laws allow for someone to be convicted of blasphemy simply based on the testimony of another, without further evidence.
“That is in clear contravention to building a society where differences and differing points of views and religious tolerance and religious freedom are well-respected and well-enshrined,” she said
All these problems combine create a “climate of extremism” and a “climate of impunity” that leads to these attacks, she added.
“How can you say that you are acting on all fronts to uphold religious freedom, to uphold social harmony and tolerance, when Pakistan’s constitution and its criminal laws basically criminalize a whole peaceful, wonderful Muslim community, namely the Amadi Muslim community, within Pakistan?” she asked.
The U.S. State Department could actively help by designating Pakistan a “Country of Particular Concern,” she said. This list is for countries where serious and ongoing violations of religious freedom occur, and the U.S. government can take actions, such as imposing economic sanctions, against these nations.