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Pakistani Christians Demand Protection

Family members mourn as they gather near the body of a relatives killed in Lahore blast on March 27.
Family members mourn as they gather near the body of a relatives killed in Lahore blast on March 27.

Already living under the shadow of discriminatory laws and social exclusion, Pakistan's impoverished and long-suffering Christian minority now find themselves in the crosshairs of Islamist extremists.

Following an attack in the eastern city of Lahore that saw at least 73 people killed this past Easter Sunday, Pakistani Christians say they feel extremely vulnerable and have called for government protection.

The attack on March 27 took place in a park in eastern Pakistani city, where churches were also targeted by Pakistani Taliban factions last year.

"Until recently, terrorists were not so focused on our community. But now, all their attention is on us," said Irshad Ashnaz, the vicar of Lahore's Christ Church. "Perhaps it is time now for the [Pakistani] government too to turn their attention to us."

Zubaida Masih lost her 16-year-old son, Wasif Masih, in Lahore's Gulshan-e Iqbal park bombing on March 27. She blamed lax security at the park for her loss.

"This happened just because of a lack of security. What else can we say? If there had been stronger security measures, this would not have happened," she said.

Masih said the authorities provided some security to Christian churches after 15 worshippers were killed in bomb attacks on two churches in Lahore's Christian neighborhood, Youhanabad, on March 15, 2015.

"There were security measures at churches but not in parks," she said.

Pakistan's estimated 3 million Christians are a tiny minority in a country of 200 million Muslims. Their ancestors were low-caste Hindus who converted to Christianity in the 19th century, and today Pakistan's blasphemy laws are frequently misused against them. Mostly relegated to sanitation jobs, Christians and other non-Muslim minorities are barred from holding high office.

In recent years, Christian communities have endured mob violence and terrorist attacks. More than 80 worshippers were killed in an attack on a 130-year-old church in the northwestern Pakistani city of Peshawar in September 2013. In March that year, a Muslim mob burned 170 houses, 16 shops, and two churches in a Christian neighborhood in Lahore.

The city is the capital of eastern Punjab Province, where most of Pakistani Christians are concentrated. In one of the worst riots against Christians in Punjab, eight people were burned alive when a mob torched an entire village in 1997, which rendered its 20,000 residents homeless.

Following the recent bombing, Pope Francis has called on Islamabad to protect its Christian citizens.

"I appeal to civil authorities and all sectors of [Pakistan] to make every effort to restore security and serenity to the population, and in particular to the most vulnerable religious minorities," he told pilgrims at St. Peter's Square on March 28.

Pakistani authorities, however, are adamant they are doing everything they can to protect Christians and other minorities.

Balighur Rehman, a state minister for the interior, said Pakistan's religious minorities do not feel particularly vulnerable.

"Pakistani minorities understand they are not the only targets of the terrorist attacks," he told Radio Mashaal. "Our mosques, funerals, and other soft targets have been hit, as well."

Islamabad appears to have launched a massive crackdown against Taliban sympathizers in the eastern Punjab Province, which has traditionally escaped large-scale military operations -- the hallmark of Pakistani counterterrorism efforts in the restive northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province.

Authorities have so far questioned thousands and detained hundreds as part of its investigation into the Lahore attacks.

Critics, however, still point out Islamabad's unwillingness to go against all militants operating out of its territory.

On March 28, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif again repeated the familiar government mantra of going after all terrorists.

"Today, I am addressing you to renew my vow that we are accounting for each and every drop of the blood of our martyrs," he said in a televised address. "This score is being settled, and we will not sit comfortably until until the last score is fully settled."

There is, however, little solace for Pakistani Christians in such pledges. Thirty-five­year­old driver Nadeem Gul, who survived the Lahore attack, says Christians are afraid to celebrate.

"We have had to learn to live with fear," he told The Guardian. "Every time there is a religious festival, we Christians feel a looming sense of threat. We cannot be happy on our holy occasions."

Radio Mashaal correspondent Gul Ayaz contributed reporting. With reporting by Reuters and The Guardian.

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