On January 30th, 2022, Bishop William Siraj, Father Naaem Patrick, and a third, yet unnamed priest had just finished celebrating Sunday Mass in the Gulbahar neighbourhood of Peshawar City, Pakistan. The holy men were walking home in peace, when the unthinkable happened.
A motorcycle or motorcycles neared the group, before the peaceful mist of this cool Sunday walk was interrupted by the rattle of gunshots.
Multiple shots were fired, striking Bishop Siraj, aged 75, several times. Father Naaem Patrick was wounded, and the unnamed priest was unharmed. According to police, Bishop Siraj died immediately. Father Naaem was taken to the hospital to receive medical attention for his wounds.
The gunmen escaped on what police believed to be motorcycles, initiating a provincial manhunt. Law enforcement is still scrambling to find CCTV footage of the gunmen escaping after the attack. As of yet, the killers have not been found, and no terror or other extremist group has taken responsibility for the attack.
Additional policemen were deployed around Peshawar’s All Saints Church, where a memorial service for Father Siraj was attended by more than 3,000 mourners on Monday, January 31st. The memorial service was held at the same church that was attacked by militants with bombs and gunfire in 2013. More than 70 worshippers were killed and 100 were wounded in that attack, one of Pakistan’s worst targeting Christians.
Hina Jilani, chairman of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, condemned the killing, saying the commission sees the attack “as a blatant assault not only on Pakistan’s Christian community but on all religious minorities whose right to life and security of person remains under constant threat”.
This is far from the first time that violence has been committed against Pakistan’s Christian minority. Ranked eighth on Open Doors World Watch List, Pakistan is one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a Christian. For reference, the neighboring nation of Iraq, where many of our initiatives to help those under severe persecution are located, is ranked 14th. Open Doors lists the persecution in these countries as “extreme,” and “very high.”
Pakistan’s national constitution sanctions discrimination against Christians and other minorities, barring them from holding positions in the federal government such as Prime Minister, President, or Judge. Evangelism of any kind is forbidden, and those suspected of proselytizing face prison time.
Forced conversion is commonplace, with one Christian journalist forced to quit her job at a prominent news outlet in 2019 because she would not convert to Islam. That is the least of the violence against Christians in Pakistan, with reports of Christians facing extreme violence, such as sexual assault, beatings, and murder for their refusal to convert to Islam.
Women from minority religious groups are often subjected to vicious kidnappings and forced marriages to Islamic extremists. Conversions to Christianity by Muslim-born individuals are not recognized as valid by the Pakistani government and are punishable by death under the nation’s blasphemy laws.
Violence against Christians in Pakistan has been a fact of life for several decades, with the situation becoming increasingly dangerous in the last few years.
In 2009, there was a series of pogroms against Christians in Pakistan, at the hands of Islamic extremists, known as the Gojra riots. Eight people were killed, including a child, with many others beaten and maimed, with homes and businesses also burned down in acts of brutal mob violence.
In 2012, protesters broke through the gates of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Mardan, burning the church and its connected school.
On March 15th 2015, two blasts took place at a Roman Catholic Church and a Christ Church during Sunday service at Youhanabad town of Lahore. At least 15 people were killed and 70 were wounded in the attacks.
On March 27th 2016, at least 70 were killed and over 340 wounded when a Pakistani Taliban suicide bomber targeted Christians celebrating Easter and attacked a playground in Lahore. On December 17th 2017, 9 were killed and 57 injured in an ISIS bombing.
Muslims make up a little over 96% of the population in Pakistan. The largest minority religion in Pakistan is Hinduism, at a little over 2%. Christians in Pakistan are a small minority of the country, at just 1.27% of the population, and are disproportionately targeted by their muslim neighbors.
Christians in Pakistan are largely members of the Punjabi culture, and are mostly of Dalit ancestry, meaning that they or their ancestors converted to Christianity from Hinduism before the independence of Pakistan in 1947.
Dalit is the lowest social caste in Hindu culture, known colloquially as “untouchables.” They were historically enslaved and exploited by the upper class in India, where they were subjugated based on Hindu religious teaching that placed their community at the bottom of society. These are the most vulnerable and marginalized people in their greater communities. Adopting the Christian religion in such a heavily opposed environment has proven difficult and dangerous for many.
AFFRME stands in solidarity with our brothers and sisters across the Middle East, in places such as Pakistan. We are committed to sharing their stories, and implementing programs, such as our initiatives in Iraq and Jordan, that we hope will bring relief and reconciliation to the region. Our aim is to provide help, hope, and healing to Christians and other religious minorities fleeing oppression in the Middle East Please keep the Christians of Pakistan in your prayers.