On Sunday evening, dozens of Christian families gathered in a neighborhood park in Lahore, Pakistan to visit with Muslim friends, play with their children, and celebrate Easter, a holiday sacred to followers of Jesus Christ the world over.
But just minutes after the sun set, horror struck: an explosion triggered by a suicide bomber ripped through the park, spewing deadly shrapnel that killed at least 70 people and injured more than 341 others. According to one eyewitness, the carnage was overwhelming: there were “bodies everywhere,” he said, many of them children.
It was several hours before the Jamaat-ur-Ahrar, a Pakistani splinter faction of the Taliban, claimed responsibility for the attack, confirming suspicions that the placement and timing of the bombing had a dark — and highly specific — design.
"The target was Christians," Ehsanullah Ehsan, a spokesman for the group, said. "We want to send this message to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif that we have entered Lahore."
To Western observers — many of whom learned of the blast through a Facebook glitch — this violent antagonism towards Pakistan’s tiny Christian population may seem sudden, unexpected, and confusing. But for many Christians in Islamabad, the killings represent just the latest attempt in a longstanding effort to use their community and other religious minorities as expendable pawns — and, all too often, cannon fodder — for larger political battles in the region.
Pakistan’s Jesus-worshipping community is small — they constitute just 1.6 percent of the population. They are neither wealthy nor particularly influential: according to the BBC, many are descendants of poorer Hindus who converted to Christianity to escape the caste system during British colonial rule. While some are wealthy, most still work low-paying jobs as day laborers and farmhands.
Despite this, Christians in Pakistan have fallen victim to a disproportionate number of violent attacks, with Sunday’s explosion the latest in a string of horrific incidents going back decades. Twin church bombings rocked Lahore on Mar 15, 2015, killing 15 Christians, wounding 70 more, and inciting riots; on September 23, 2013, two suicide bombers detonated explosives as hundreds of worshippers left Sunday Mass in Peshawar, killing 80; in 2009, around 40 houses in Punjab Christian neighborhoods and a church were set aflame by a mob, killing eight — some of them burned alive, including a child.
Militants who enact such atrocities typically recite a familiar list of religious justifications, such as the desire to implement a hardline interpretation of Sharia law throughout the nation. But often lost in this litany of death — which, unlike many attacks on fellow Muslims, make headlines in the West — are the shrewd political goals that led the assaults in the first place. The two Taliban-linked factions who took credit for the 2013 church bombings explained their intent was to retaliate against U.S. drone strikes in the region, believing — correctly — that the killings would make the news in America, where most of the population is Christian. Broader political motives (such as the Pakistani government’s ongoing military struggle agains the Taliban) are also thought to have played a role in the 2015 killings, and the 2009 mobs were said to have been "misled by Muslim extremists.” In fact, the longest string of anti-Christian attacks in the country — a series of grenade attacks on Pakistani Christian hospitals, charities, and churches — occurred in 2002 in the wake of very specific event: the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, the seat of the Taliban.
Fast forward to this weekend’s Easter bombing, which comes in the midst of an ongoing cultural dispute over Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy laws — constitutional edicts that technically prohibit defaming any recognized religion, but are most often used to prosecute those who malign Islam in country where more than 95 percent of citizens are Muslim. One of the most recent examples came in 2010, when a Christian woman in Punjab was accused by several Muslim women of blaspheming. Salman Taseer, then the governor of Punjab, spoke out against the verdict, saying the government had abused the law, and was promptly assassinated by his bodyguard Mumtaz Qadri. Qadri was later sentenced to death for the murder, but when he was executed in February of this year, his death sparked widespread protests within hours.
Meanwhile, the Pakistani government, which militants often accuse of being too friendly with Western nations, recently worked to try and remedy the perception that the country is hard on religious minorities. On March 15, the National Assembly voted to recognize three non-Muslim holidays: Diwali and Holi, both Hindu holidays, and the Christian celebration of Easter.
In this context, it’s easy to see how militant groups would hope to exploit domestic tensions for their own gain, undermining the legitimacy of the Pakistani government through violent means. And while Christians are often a target, so too are other minority groups such as Shia Muslims: In October 2015, two days of suicide bombings left at least 32 Shia Muslims dead, ravaging the group during their celebration of Ashura.
But while antagonism toward religious minorities in Pakistan is widespread, universal endorsement for Jamaat-ur-Ahrar — a group that once expressed support for the genocidal militant group ISIS — and their special breed of terror is not. Like ISIS, their methods are often wanton and indiscriminate: initial reports indicate that most of the Sunday’s victims were not Christian, but Muslim.