That points to a frightening evolution in the country’s multifaceted violence — threatening a new wave of bloodshed, this time targeting non-Muslim religions, which account for barely 5 percent of Pakistan’s mainly Sunni Muslim population of 180 million.
Already a nervous minority, Pakistan’s Christians are among the poorest minorities in the country, often living in squalid settlements tucked away in sprawling cities.
The community has come under brutal attacks before. But in most cases, they were unorganized mob attacks by radical Muslims who burned down entire Christian neighborhoods, usually over a personal or property dispute that escalated into charges a Christian committed blasphemy against Islam. Pakistan’s blasphemy laws have also landed dozens of Christians in jail over flimsy charges that could get them death penalties.
Claiming responsibility for Sunday’s bombing in the northwestern city of Peshawar, the group Jundullah gave the attack a political dimension, saying it targeted Christians to avenge the deaths of Muslims killed by U.S. drone strikes — painted among militants as part of a “Christian campaign” against Islam.
“This is a new dimension, a new direction to attack the Christian community at large,” said Cecil Shane Chaudhry, acting executive director of the National Commission for Justice and Peace, a Catholic advocacy group.
In the past, militants have been focused on attacking Pakistan’s minority Shiite and Ahmadi Muslims, seen by Sunni extremists as heretics. Now, Chaudhry said, Christians have been added to the list.
“It definitely is something to be worried about,” he said.
The development highlights the enormity of the problem facing Pakistan as the new government works out a policy against militants.
A complex array of independent but semiconnected groups makes up the country’s terrorist mix. Groups morph and diverge, often with divergent and even opposing goals, some acting out a radical vision of Islamic law, some angered by the war in neighboring Afghanistan, some shifting among those and other motives.
Jundullah found a home in Pakistan’s tribal regions about three years ago, aligning itself with the toxic mix of up to 150 militant groups that inhabit the area, say analysts and former military officials. It has gone from relative obscurity, garnering only the occasional mention in jihadi publications, to a dangerous force, said Amir Rana, whose Pakistan Institute for the Study of Peace monitors militant groups.
It claimed responsibility for the slaying of 11 climbers from Russia, China and Ukraine in June and an attack on an intelligence office in southern Sindh province.
Rana described Jundullah as a cell of the larger Pakistani Taliban organization known as Tehrik-e-Taliban (TTP). He said there are about 11 such cells, each with different names and with diverse tasks. Others say the central command of the TTP fragmented long ago, and the various militant groups under its banner, while bound by ideology, differ in strategy and tactics.
The former police inspector general in Khyber Pukhtunkhwa, where Peshawar is the capital, said there is no cohesion among the insurgent groups, but they are loosely aligned with each other and with al-Qaida.
Galvanized by the brutality of Sunday’s attack, Muslim and non-Muslim Pakistanis staged protests throughout the country. Politicians who have advocated unconditional peace talks with militants began to urge caution.
“A routine condemnation for this incident is just not enough,” Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, who is in charge of security forces, said Monday.
Yet after nearly three months in power, the government remains vague about how to tackle the proliferation of militant groups. One military official said it is still waiting for the government to give direction to the war on terror: Fight or talk?
In the murky world of militancy, Jundullah is a particularly difficult organization to fathom. There are three separate groups in Pakistan named Jundullah, Arabic for “army of God.”
While united in their loathing for Shiites, all three groups are unconnected and operate independently, say analysts.
The group that claimed responsibility for the church bombing is believed to count among its members some foreign, al-Qaida-linked fighters. It also claims that the head of his organization is a 35-year-old American, Ahmad Marwan.
Despite differences among the militants, a former military point man for the tribal regions, retired Brig. Mahmood Shah, said their propensity for violence knows no bounds.
“For them nothing is sacred. They have attacked a funeral, a marriage party. They have attacked mosques,” he said. “The Christian community in Peshawar is the poorest. It was a horrific incident.”