What happened in Pakistan?
On Easter Sunday evening a suicide bomber detonated a device filled with nuts, bolts, and ball bearings, killing at least 72 and injuring 342 people at a large park in the Pakistani city of Lahore.
The explosion reportedly occurred at the main gate to the Gulshan-e-Iqbal park in a parking area and a short distance from the children's swings.
Who carried out the attack and what was the motive?
The terrorist attack was claimed by Jamaat-ul-Ahrar (“Assembly of the Free”), a militant Islamic group that broke away from the Pakistani Taliban in 2014. A spokesman for the group called The News International, the largest English language newspaper in Pakistan, to claim responsibility.
“We proudly take responsibility for the suicide attack in a park in Lahore. The members of the Christian community who were celebrating Easter today were our prime target,” he said.
When asked if women and children were their target as most of those killed in the blast were women and children, the Taliban spokesman said they were not on their hit list.
“We didn’t want to kill women and children. Our target was the male members of the Christian community,” he maintained.
Besides, he said, they wanted to send a message to the PML-N government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif that they (the militants) had arrived in Lahore and he should use whatever precautionary measures his government could undertake.
Ehsan said it was the first of series of attacks they had planned to conduct in the current year in different parts of the country.
The New York Times notes that the attack came just days after Pakistan’s National Assembly adopted a resolution to recognize Easter and the Hindu festivals of Holi and Diwali as public holidays.
How many Christians live in Pakistan?
Pakistan has a total population of 191 million, but only 3 million Christians (1.6 percent of the population). They are split almost evenly between Protestants and Roman Catholics.
As the BBC notes, the majority of Pakistan's Christians are descended from low-caste Hindus who converted under the British Raj. They remain in the poorest sector of society doing menial jobs, often serving as laborers and farmhands.
How common is persecution of Christians in Pakistan?
Persecution is becoming increasingly common in Pakistan, a nation whose constitution establishes Islam as the state religion and requires that laws be consistent with Islam. This is often used, as the U.S. State Department’s International Religious Freedom Report for 2014 observes, as a tool for oppression: “Citizens frequently used blasphemy laws to harass religious minorities and vulnerable Muslims, and to settle personal scores or business rivalries.”
Last November, for example, an estimated mob of 1,500 villagers accused a Christian couple of blasphemy and burned them alive in a brick kiln. The kiln owner had accused the couple of desecrating a Qur’an after the couple failed to repay a loan, and locked them in a room while announcements from local mosques rallied the crowd.
Also, last March, two bomb blasts at churches in Lahore killed 14 and injured more than 70 people. A twin suicide bomb attack at a Peshawar church in 2013 also left around 80 dead. And in 2009 nearly 40 houses and a church were burnt by a mob in Punjab, burning alive eight people.
Additionally, according to the National Commission for Justice and Peace, an estimated 1,000 Christian and Hindu women are “forced by kidnappers or malefactors to convert and marry Muslim men in Pakistan every year.”
What was the response of the U.S. government to the bombing?
The U.S. State Department released a statement on Sunday saying, “The United States condemns in the strongest terms today’s appalling terrorist attack in Lahore, Pakistan. This cowardly act, which targeted innocent civilians in the Gulshan-e-Iqbal Park, has killed dozens and left scores injured.”
The statement makes no mention that the terrorists were from Jamaat-ul-Ahrar or that the target was Christians. It is unclear whether that information was available when the statement was released. (The news agency Reuters reported at 11:44 p.m. ET that Jamaat-ul-Ahrar had claimed responsibility.)
On Monday White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said, “The fact that you have an extremist organization targeting religious minorities and children is an outrage.” Earnest added, Eeven though this terror attack was targeted at Christians, a religious minority in Pakistan—that in an of itself is grotesque—the fact of the matter is that based on the names we are seeing now the majority of the victims were actually Muslims.”