Islamabad (AsiaNews) - "In the past, we have witnessed actual bloodbaths. Churches and schools have been attacked, and we have lost loved ones in the war on terror." Equally, "we stand firm with our Armed Forces who are fighting on the front line. We also stand by the government as it puts up a fierce fight" against violence and terror, said Mgr Rufin Anthony, bishop of Islamabad/Rawalpindi, who addressed Pakistan's Christian community as it observed a day of prayer for peace across the country.
The latest Catholic initiative is a response to the escalating wave of terror that has fallen on the nation and left scores of people dead in the first weeks of 2014. In the capital, thousands of people joined the candlelight vigil for peace.
During the rally, the prelate spoke about Fr Anwar Patras, a Pakistani priest who died last week and was buried in Mianwali District. With a lifetime of service in the dioceses of Rawalpindi and Attock, he led in the fields of education and health, especially raising awareness in a campaign for polio vaccination.
Since the start of the year, Islamic extremists and Pakistani Taliban have carried out at least ten major attacks across the country. For most Pakistanis, the time is for quick action, including a decisive military campaign "to eradicate terrorism from the roots".
"People live in fear," said Fr John P Riaz, a priest from Rawalpindi. There is a lot of "uncertainty" about the future. People want only peace and security. "We pray for peace in the region because we want a future for the new generations," he added, "a future free from fear."
On this occasion, the Christian community in Khyber Pukthunkhawa province also celebrated one hundred years of presence in Tribal Areas, despite the fact that they do not enjoy the same status as the rest of the local population and are not recognised as members of any tribe.
Although Christians are loyal to tribal laws, "we are not accepted as part of the tribe where we live," said Arshad John, a local Christian. "Christians are not allowed to take part in jirga (a local assembly of elders). We are aliens in our own land, a land which we have protected for more than a hundred years."
In fact, Christians are not allowed to build churches, and pastors and priests have to refrain from venturing into these areas because of the danger of abduction and murder. Just recently, a priest was kidnapped and released only after a large sum of money was paid.
"It is ironic that Christians are not recognised even in Tribal Areas despite their loyalty," said Fr James Ilyas, from the Diocese of Peshawar, where a Protestant church was attacked in September. In view of this, the Church continues to pray "for persecuted people".
With a population of more than 180 million people (97 per cent Muslim), Pakistan is the sixth most populous country in the world, the second largest Muslim nation after Indonesia. Hindus are 1.85 per cent, followed by Christians (1.6 per cent) and Sikhs (0.04 per cent).
Violence against ethnic and religious minorities is commonplace across the country, with Shia Muslims and Christians as the main target, with things getting worse in recent years.