The persecution and targeting of religious and sectarian minorities has occurred throughout Pakistan’s history, but a number of attacks in 2010 highlight a qualitative shift in this trend. The scale, location, tactics, and claims of responsibility for attacks on minority religious institutions have changed dramatically between last year and this one, showing that Pakistan’s minorities are an increasing target of the region’s extremist groups.
On May 28, 80 people were killed and over 90 injured in coordinated attacks on two Ahmadi mosques in Lahore. On July 2, two suicide bombers attacked a Sufi shrine in Lahore, killing at least 50 and wounding more than 170. Three bombs targeted a Shiite religious procession in Lahore on September 1 during the month of Ramazan, killing at least 35 and injuring around 250. On October 25, two suicide bombers killed eight people and wounded over 60 in an attack on a Sufi shrine in Karachi.
According to numbers based on calculations from the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center, news reports, and other sources, there were 25 attacks on mosques in 2009, and 11 of those incidents targeted sectarian minority mosques and institutions. In comparison, there were 19 attacks in 2010, with 10 targeting minority religious institutions.
Although the number of recorded attacks against minorities seems not to have changed much between 2009 and 2010, other key factors changed significantly. In 2010, attacks on minority religious institutions were for the most part large-scale, resulting in significantly higher death tolls than those in 2009. For instance, the average number of people killed in minority-related mosque attacks in 2009 was three. In 2010, the number ballooned to 18 (the average number wounded was 24 in 2009 and 61 in 2010).
Many of these 2010 attacks occurred in Pakistan’s major cities, such as the Sufi shrine bombing in Karachi and the Ahmadi mosque attacks in Lahore. In 2009, comparatively, such attacks were mostly concentrated in the country’s northern areas, including the tribal areas and smaller towns in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. The type of attacks also shifted between 2009 and 2010. Last year, militants used mainly IEDs (improvised explosive devices), VBIEDs (vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices), and grenades in their attacks on minority religious institutions; in 2010, on the other hand, suicide attacks were more common, a reason for the larger death tolls.
Finally, there was a shift in groups claiming responsibility. While there was no claim of responsibility for many of the attacks in 2009, Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) claimed more attacks this year, including the bombings of the Sufi shrine in Karachi and the Ahmadi mosques in Lahore (though TTP spokesmen denied they were behind the Sufi shrine attack in Lahore in July).
As Cyril Almeida, an assistant editor and columnist at Dawn Newspaper in Pakistan, noted, “The [Pakistani] military suggests that the success of its operations in the tribal areas has disrupted the militant networks. This has made it more important for TTP to be seen to be ‘active‘ and still posing a threat. This might explain why we have seen a rise in the claims of responsibility of minority religious institutions this year.”
But the TTP, despite what it claims, may not be behind all these attacks. Instead, groups belonging to the Punjabi Taliban, with more reach into Pakistan’s urban centers, could be working with the militant umbrella organization to carry out these attacks. By claiming responsibility, the TTP is in effect perpetuating the perception that there is one centralized larger enemy rather than a more manageable cluster of nameless militants operating independently. The increasing number of large-scale suicide attacks occurring in Pakistan’s major cities, not just in the northwestern areas, is also important in the perceptions war because these incidents garner more media attention and exacerbate the notion that the threat is close by, stoking greater instability and fear in the country.
Moeed Yusuf, a South Asia advisor for the United States Institute of Peace, further emphasized, “Terrorist strikes on minority religious institutions are now overall more well-coordinated. More groups are involved in each strike, and better-trained cadres are sent to high-value targets than in the peripheral areas.”
The shift in the nature of these attacks on minority religious institutions also mirrors increasingly heightened anti-minority sentiment in the country. Religious and sectarian minorities have long been marginalized, targeted, and persecuted throughout Pakistan’s history, though the introduction of the blasphemy laws in the 1980s added further legitimacy to this intolerance. Among the most recent victims of these laws is Aasia Bibi, who recently became the first Christian woman to be sentenced to death because of a conviction under the blasphemy laws, and whose story has sparked polarizing reactions from human rights groups to religious organizations.
According to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom‘s latest annual report, “[D]iscriminatory laws, promulgated in previous decades and persistently enforced, have fostered an atmosphere of religious intolerance and eroded the social and legal status of members of religious minorities, including Shi’a Muslims, Ahmadis, Hindus, and Christians. Government officials do not provide adequate protections from societal violence to members of these religious minority communities, and perpetrators of attacks on minorities seldom are brought to justice.”
In the case of attacks on minority religious institutions, the trend in the past year further illustrates how sectarian violence has intensified to a new level, and are perpetrated on a larger-scale by increasingly well-coordinated militant groups. If these groups want to destabilize Pakistan, noted Yusuf, then attacking minorities’ places of worship adds a further “sectarian dimension to that instability.”