Soon after news of the bombing of Peshawar’s elegantly designed 19th-century All Saints church broke, Pakistan’s beleaguered Christians came out on the streets of its main cities.
Save for a few incidents of shooting in Karachi, the protests had an admirable dignity to them. The small crowds of Christians held aloft placards, and asked yet again who would offer them protection. It was, depressingly, a familiar routine.
For several years, the tiny Christian community in this overwhelmingly Muslim community has suffered layers of discrimination. In Punjab, the most populous province, bigots see them as “unclean” former members of a low Hindu caste.
The discrimination leads them to often find employment mostly as cleaners or doing other menial jobs. They often live in small, clustered neighbourhoods of overcrowded redbrick homes on the edge of a major city or town.
The anger and grief displayed at the protests is reflective of the scale of the tragedy. Never have so many Christians been slain before in a single attack. Their suffering has more usually come at the hands of mobs who torch their homes and force them to flee against the backdrop of an unsubstantiated charge of blasphemy.
Two years ago, the community lost its most prominent representative when Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti was gunned down in Islamabad for speaking out against Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy laws.
There are fears that the Peshawar bombing will not be the last such attack, as Pakistan’s Shias know. This year, the minority Muslim sect has buried hundreds of their members after a wave of bombings across the country.
The new government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has said it wants to talk peace with the militants. But, as Pakistan’s latest tragedy shows, the militants are neither willing to talk. For them, whether non-Muslims and Muslims from smaller sects deserve to live is not a matter for negotiation.