- ELLIS HEASLEY
On January 30, Pastor William Siraj, a retired schoolteacher and priest at a church in the Chamkani region of Peshawar, northern Pakistan, was returning from a church service with his friend and colleague, the Reverend Patrick Naeem. Unfortunately, he never returned home.
Pastor Siraj and Reverend Naeem, along with a third individual who was traveling with them, were attack in their car by two unidentified assailants who opened fire on their vehicle from a motorcycle. Both men were shot dead and taken to Lady Reading Hospital, but Pastor Siraj was pronounced dead on arrival. The third passenger is unharmed.
Pastor William Siraj. PHOTO: Courtesy of CSW
“The killing was a painful reminder of the religiously motivated extremist violence that has plagued Peshawar in the past, including a double suicide bombing in September 2013 that killed around 127 people and injured some 250 people who had gathered to attend Sunday mass. at Church of All Saints.”
No one claimed responsibility for the shooting, but in a statement following the attack, Peshawar Police Chief Abbas Ahsan linked the incident to terrorist elements. He said the investigation was being carried out by officials from the Counter-Terrorism Department as well as local police.
The killing was a painful reminder of the religiously motivated extremist violence that has plagued Peshawar in the past, including in September 2013, double suicide bombing which killed an estimated 127 people and injured some 250 who had gathered to attend Sunday mass at All Saints Church.
Despite being condemned by then Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and a landmark Supreme Court judgment ordering the government to protect minorities soon after, religious minorities across the country have continued to face widespread intolerance and discrimination and, in the most extreme cases such as Pastor Siraj, violent extremism.
Violence often occurs particularly in relation to allegations of blasphemy, an act which is criminalized under Section 295 of the Pakistani Penal Code. The laws are loosely defined and therefore susceptible to misuse, and often used as a weapon of revenge against Muslims and non-Muslims alike to settle personal scores or to resolve disputes over money, property or business.
For example, in December 2021, Priyantha Diyawadana, a Buddhist and Sri Lankan national, was kill by a crowd of hundreds in Punjab after being accused of desecrating posters bearing the name of the Prophet Muhammad. It later emerged that Mr Diyawadana had been falsely accused by his colleagues at the factory where he worked.
Of course, much of what has allowed such rampant intolerance to spread has to do with the failure of the Pakistani government, including Prime Minister Imran Khan himself, to condemn acts of religious extremism such as the one that cost the life of Pastor Siraj.
In addition, Prime Minister Khan has also repeatedly repeated comfortably seated to the more conservative Islamic elements in the country, as he did during a meeting with Islamic scholars in Karachi last year during which he stress that no new laws would be enacted under his rule if deemed “in direct conflict with the teachings of Islam”.
Measures like these embolden Islamic extremists and offer little hope to minority communities in Pakistan who continue to suffer from a series of discriminatory policies, including education and employment.
One community that is particularly vulnerable is that of Ahmadiyya Muslimsfor whom the propagation and practice of their own beliefs have been punished by law since 1974, and who regularly find themselves victims of intolerance and violence under the encouragement of radical Islamists who consider them “non-Muslims”.
The murder of Pastor Siraj should serve as a wake-up call for Pakistan, but so is the murder of Priyantha Diyawadana, and indeed the many similar cases in which lives have been claimed in the name of religious extremism these last years. Religious intolerance is rampant in the country, yet Prime Minister Imran Khan and his government have not only failed to respond, but have helped create an atmosphere in which Pakistan is an Islamic nation, where religious minorities are citizens second class, and where Islamic extremists act with complete impunity.
Today, we must pray that Pakistan will reverse this worrying course, claiming this verse from Leviticus 26:6 for the country, and more particularly for its minority religious communities: “I will bring peace to the land, and you go to bed and no one will scare you.
Ellis Heasley is a public affairs officer with the UK-based Religious Freedom Advocacy CSW.