Pakistan's Christians celebrate Xmas under tight security

There were Christmas lights and trees, but also men in khaki armed with rifles on Christmas Day.

Across Pakistan, a Muslim majority country of 220 million people, Christians celebrated Christmas on Monday with zeal and zest despite threats of terrorism.

The Pakistani government deployed commandos, snipers and plain-clothes policemen across the country to keep terrorists at bay, as the country's Christians celebrated the birth of Jesus Christ.

From the capital Islamabad to cities such as Lahore, Peshawar, Karachi and Quetta, huge numbers of worshippers dressed in festive outfits poured into heavily guarded churches decorated with Christmas lights and trees for prayer sessions.

The security measures come after a suicide gun attack on Dec 17 at the Bethel Memorial Methodist Church in Quetta during a Sunday service. Nine Christians were killed, with dozens wounded.

In a pleasant surprise for the Christian community, the chief of army staff, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, took part in Christmas celebrations at Christ Church in the garrison city of Rawalpindi. In Pakistan, it is rare for the chief of the armed forces to attend any religious gathering.

Pakistani police officers standing guard at a church on Christmas Day in Lahore. The government deployed commandos, snipers and plain-clothes policemen across the country to keep terrorists at bay. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Gen Bajwa acknowledged the contribution of Christians not only to the creation of Pakistan, but also to its progress, in a note issued by the Pakistan army on Monday.

President Mamnoon Hussain and Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi also sent good wishes to the Christian community for Christmas.

Such gestures have brought some cheer to Christians in Pakistan, who make up less than 2 per cent of its population. They have long faced discrimination, often ending up in low-paying jobs, and sometimes becoming the target of trumped-up blasphemy charges.

Pakistan used to enjoy relative religious harmony. But this was disrupted as a result of religious clashes in 1974 between the Brelvi Sunnis and Ahmedi/Qadiani communities, the Afghanistan war in 1979 and the regime of General Zia ul Haq (1978-1988), which discriminated against Christians.

Attacks against religious minorities are not uncommon.

In recent years, the Christian community has also become a prime target of Islamist militants.

For instance, on Sept 22, 2013, a twin suicide bomb attack at All Saints Church in Peshawar killed 127 Christians; on March 27 last year, a suicide bombing in a Lahore park killed more than 70 people on Easter Sunday.

But Mr Aamir Ghauri, editor of Pakistan's influential daily, The News, said the situation is changing for the better.

He told The Straits Times: "(The) government has shown signs of courage in confronting the rightist forces, and military commanders have openly participated in Christmas celebrations by visiting churches and sharing in their festivities. These are hopeful signs."

In a move appreciated by Christians and non-Christians, the crew of the national carrier, Pakistan International Airlines, distributed gifts to passengers on board. One of them even dressed up as Santa Claus. A video of the celebrations posted on the airline's Facebook page proved popular and was widely shared.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 27, 2017, with the headline Pakistan's Christians celebrate Xmas under tight security. Subscribe