For Christians in Peshawar, Christmas this year will be dominated by absent faces.
Eighty-two people were killed when a devastating double suicide attack targeted their place of worship three months ago. The All Saints Church still bears the physical scars of the Sept. 22 bombing, believed to be the deadliest ever against Muslim-majority Pakistan’s small Christian community. Two bombers blew themselves up in the courtyard of the church as worshippers exchanged greetings after a service in an attack that horrified the entire country.
The courtyard walls are still peppered with holes gouged by the hundreds of ragged metal ball bearings that were packed into the explosive vests to cause maximum carnage. Inside the church, a clock is stopped at 11:43—the time the bombers struck and for some worshippers the pain of that day is still fresh.
Anwar Khokhar, 53, lost six members of his family in the attack, including three of his brothers. For him, the season that for most Christians represents hope and happiness brings no joy but only a keener sense of the bitterness of his loss. “As Christmas gets nearer I miss them more and more. I miss them as much as it is possible to miss anyone,” he said after attending the last Sunday service before Christmas. “I miss our relatives so sadly, one of my brothers especially. It’s so hard that he’s not with us this Sunday and especially at Christmas.”
In his sermon the vicar, Reverend Ejaz Gill, tried to offer comfort, saying the victims are at peace and will join with their loved ones spiritually to celebrate Christmas. But for some the wounds are still too fresh and after the service a group of women gathered to weep in the courtyard, which is adorned with posters of the dead, stifling tears in their brightly colored “Sunday best” headscarves. One woman in particular was inconsolable, burying her face in one of the posters showing a bright-eyed teenage girl, sobbing uncontrollably.
The seemingly senseless slaughter of so many innocent civilians shocked Pakistan and it is still not clear who carried out the attack. After an initial claim by a militant outfit allied to the Pakistani Taliban, the group’s main spokesman denied any link.
Christians, who make up just two percent of Pakistan’s overwhelmingly Muslim population of 180 million, have suffered attacks and riots in recent years over allegations of blasphemy, often spurious, but bombings such as the All Saints blast are very rare. Being a small community they are close-knit and as housewife Nasreen Anwar explained, almost no Christian in Peshawar was untouched by September’s carnage.
“In every family, one or two people were killed, so how can we celebrate Christmas? There will be no happiness,” she said. Anwar, 35, lost her 14-year-old daughter in the blast while her nine-year-old daughter was so badly wounded she now uses a colostomy bag and faces further surgery in the new year. “But everyone shared our sorrow—Christian, Muslim came to our homes and shared our sorrows,” she said. Gill agreed the tragedy had brought the community closer together.
“We are not fractured. After the blasts it united us, not only the Christians of Peshawar but Christians all over Pakistan and the world came and showed their support for us,” he said.
Security at the church has been stepped up since the attacks, with extra guards manning the gateway through the thick blast walls and barbed wire and a fingerprint-scan entry system installed but not yet operational. Gill is still waiting for the Rs. 1 million the government promised to repair the damage to the church, built in the 1880s. But even when the walls are pristine again, it will take rather longer to heal the emotional scars of his traumatized congregation.