Pakistan Church promoting a day of prayer for peace
by Jibran Khan
Next Sunday, all of the country's churches will remember the victims of terrorism. For a Lahore priest," It is high time to stick together" for "the good of the nation." Since the beginning of the year, dozens of people have died in suicide bombings and other acts of terrorism on an almost daily basis. Muslim religious leaders accuse the government of inaction and lack of "seriousness" in tackling the problem.

Islamabad (AsiaNews) - The Catholic Church of Pakistan will hold a national day of prayer next Sunday, 26 January, to raise awareness among the faithful about the many attacks on civilians that have shed blood across the country in the early weeks of 2014.

Fr Robin Azeem, of the Archdiocese of Lahore, told AsiaNews that "Pakistan is going through a crucial moment" characterised by widespread "uncertainty". Hence, "It is high time to stick together," he noted. "That is why we are going to hold a special prayer service for peace" that involves the entire nation.

Calling for "unity against terrorism and sectarian violence," the priest urged his compatriots to show "support for the military" to take every decision "aimed at the good of the nation."

The day of prayer against terrorism is also meant to honour the memory of two people: Aitzaz Hassan, a young student in Hangu, and Aslam Khan, a cop in Karachi who was a leading expert on counter-terrorism. Both were murdered by Islamic extremists.

"Let us celebrate [their] sacrifice, and let us strongly condemn the extremist mind-set and any other plot against our homeland," Fr Azeem said.

For the past ten years, Pakistan has been seen an upsurge in terrorism, which got worse in recent times. The war on terrorism - in which Pakistan is ostensibly on the side of the US-led international coalition - has killed thousands of innocent people.

Recently, Islamabad tried to start peace talks with the Taliban and other extremist groups, especially in the province of Khyber Pukhtunkhwa where 214 attacks reportedly took place in the past four years.

The year 2014 began with an attack against a bus carrying Shia pilgrims in Quetta, which left five people dead and 24 wounded.

On 3 January, extremists targeted Shias killing eight in an attack on a mosque in Quetta. On the 6th, Aitzaz Hassan was killed, followed three days later by Aslam Khan.

On 16 January, terrorists struck a prayer hall in Peshawar, killing 11 and wounding 65. Three days later, 22 soldiers were killed and 30 injured in an attack against a military convoy.

On 20 January, an attack took place near army headquarters in Rawalpindi, killing 13 victims. The following day, Shia pilgrims were targeted in Mustang, near Quetta, with 22 dead and 35 wounded, including women and children.

The Taliban are the main culprits. Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) has in fact claimed responsibility for this long trail of blood and has threatened more in the future.

For now, the military has responded with a large-scale operation against extremist strongholds.

Religious leaders and civil society groups have reacted with discordant voices to extremist violence.

For Ulema Council Chief Maulana Tahir Ashrafi, "The government is not serious about having a dialogue."

Conversely, Maulana Asad Anwar Shah, from the Pakistani Shia Council, accused the government of being a "silent spectator" to the tragedy that is taking place at the expense of his community, calling for a "military operation" to put an end to "bloodshed ".

For his part, Interior Minister Nisar Ali Khan said that the government was engaged in a "serious effort" of dialogue and that they would "take decisions that are in the best interest of the nation."

With more than 180 million people (97 per cent Muslim), Pakistan is the sixth most populous country in the world and the second largest Muslim country after Indonesia.

About 80 per cent of Muslims are Sunni, whilst Shias are about 20 per cent of the total. There are also small communities of Hindus (1.85 per cent), Christians (1.6 per cent) and Sikhs (0.04 per cent).

Violence against ethnic or religious minorities has been on rise in recent years with Shia Muslims and Christians as the main targets.