LAHORE - Christians late on Monday ended their protest against Youhanabad bombings when the government accepted their demands after daylong demonstrations and clashes with police in different parts of the country.
Sunday’s blasts at two churches in Lahore’s largest Christian neighbourhood ignited violent protests by an otherwise peaceful community. The protests spread from Lahore to Gujranwala, Sargodha, Faisalabad and other cities.
The death toll reached 16 as another victim of the Taliban suicide bombings succumbed to wounds at Lahore General Hospital (LGH). More than six dozen people were wounded when two suicide bombers unleashed the attack at the churches.
Cops were ordered to observe maximum restraint as the country’s Christian population on Monday took to the streets, blocked roads and attacked private vehicles to vent their spleen over the bomb strikes.
Youhanabad looked like a battlefield as angry protesters clashed with anti-riot police, forcing the authorities to deploy Rangers and use water cannons and teargas to control snowballing situation. Two people were crushed to death in the afternoon when a female driver tried to flee the angry mob while a young man sustained bullet wounds during the protest.
The Lahore police picked up more than 70 suspected persons during the security sweep launched in the neighbourhood following the attacks. Search operations against suspected elements were also underway across the Punjab.
The government held a series of negotiations with Christian community leaders on Monday. PML-N leader and former Punjab Law Minister Rana Sanaullah who led the talks told reporters, “We have accepted their demands and they have ended the protests.”
Rana also made it clear that those involved in ransacking and lynching of two men would not be spared. He said the Christian leaders have asked their people to remain peaceful, end their protest and not to damage public and private properties.
The PML-N leader said the government would duly address the grievances and concerns of the Christians but no one would be allowed to take law into his own hands under the garb of protests. He said Rangers would remain on guard in Youhanabad and on Ferozpur Road to keep the situation under control.
Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif ordered the authorities to arrest those involved in lynching of two men as the government has constituted a Joint Investigation Team (JIT) to probe the Youhanabad tragedy. Headed by Lahore DIG (Investigation), the JIT comprises officers from different law-enforcement and intelligence agencies.
In an unfortunate incident on Monday, a woman, identified as Maryam, driving her car, ran over a group of men when they forcibly tried to stop her during the protest in Youhanabad. As a result, five men sustained multiple injuries and were rushed to hospital where two of them expired later.
Policemen chased the car and captured the woman who told the investigators that she got terrified and accelerated the car to flee the angry mob. The police registered a case against her, but were yet to ascertain the identity of those killed.
A 22-year-old youth, identified as Riaz, sustained multiple bullet wounds and was taken to hospital by an Edhi ambulance. Police said the guy was injured in the aerial firing by the mob but the protesters claimed that he was shot at by police.
The political leaders and civil society leaders appealed to the protesters to remain peaceful after the violence and lynching of two suspects by an angry mob. One of them has been identified as a glasscutter, Muhammad Naeem. Police have yet to ascertain the identity of the other.
“The Christians wrongly and brutally killed my brother. He was running a shop, Azeem Glass and Aluminium Centre, in that locality. He was near the blast site to deal with some business affair when they attacked him,” Muhammad Saleem, a member of the victim family, told reporters on Monday. “Naeem had been missing since Sunday afternoon. When we went to the hospital we discovered he was one of those lynched by the mob,” he added.
Saleem has lodged an application with Nishtar Colony police to get a murder case registered under Section 7 of Anti-Terrorism Act against the protesters who killed his brother. The complainant claimed the second man who was killed by the mob was also his relative. Police investigators, however, said they were waiting for the DNA report to establish the identity of the second victim.
Throughout the day on Monday, protesters played hide and seek with the anti-riot police around Youhanabad. As the mob went on rampage, police resorted to using water cannons and shelling teargas to disperse them. An officer said that the police resorted to teargas shelling when the protesters attacked the Metro Bus station on Ferozpur Road again, which was also ransacked on Sunday.
The mood inside the bombed Christian neighbourhood was sad. Women and children, led by representatives of various NGOs, were carrying crosses and raising banners inscribed with anti-government slogans as they rallied towards the attacked St John’s Church and Christ Church.
More than 1,000 policemen were deployed in the neighbourhood where many protesters had armed themselves with clubs and rods. Despite heavy police deployment, the Christian crowd took over the main Ferozpur Road where protesters were seen throwing stones on passing cars and smashing their windows.
“Policemen are strictly directed not to retaliate. We understand that the angry protesters are grief-stricken. The situation may go out of control if the police try to use force against the protesters,” a senior police officer told The Nation.
Lahore Press Club on Monday also remained a hub of protests against the twin blasts. Series of demonstrations from various civil society organisations and Christians outside LPC caused massive traffic jam in the heart of the city.
A big demonstration was arranged by All Pakistan Minorities Alliance. The participants chanted slogans against both the Taliban and the government, and demanded foolproof security for churches. Led by Anthony Javed Sandhu, Chaudhry Tahir, Pervaiz Labba, Rafaqat Sandhu and Shahid Mushtaq, activists of Pakistan Christian Youngsters Movement gathered outside LPC at noon and continued protest for over an hour.
Justice and Peace Commission Pakistan, Anjuman Mazaraeen Punjab, Life Awareness for National Development (LAND) and residents of Joseph Colony also staged demonstrations to condemn the twin blasts and express solidarity with the victims.
Bomb attacks on worship places, particularly of minorities, are not rare in the country where Taliban militants frequently target markets, mosques and even public places. Since the country has been battling homegrown insurgency, frustrated militants have been targeting schools, worship places and such other soft targets, besides attacking the security forces. But Sunday’s strike on the Christians was the biggest since the deadliest attack on the community when militants bombed a Peshawar church in September 2013 killing more than 120 people.