By Mark Michael
Attackers shot and killed an elderly Church of Pakistan priest and wounded another while they were driving home from church on Sunday in Peshawar, a city near the Afghan border. The congregation they serve, All Saints Church, was itself the scene of a 2013 suicide bombing by Islamic extremists, one of the bloodiest attacks on Christians in recent decades.
Police report that two attackers on a motorcycle opened fire on the car in which the Rev. William Siraj, 75, was a passenger, as it was travelling along the city’s main ring road. Siraj was killed instantly.
The car’s driver, the Rev. Patrick Naeem, is being treated for a gunshot wound to the hand in the Peshawar’s Lady Reading Hospital. A third priest in the car was unharmed. All three were clerics of the Church of Pakistan, an ecumenical Protestant church that is a member province of the Anglican Communion. It is affiliated also with the World Communion of Reformed Churches and the World Methodist Council.
TV footage showed a crowd gathering at the scene and chanting “Long Live Jesus Christ” as emergency services personnel carried Siraj’s body through the streets to a house in the city’s Gulbahar neighborhood.
The attackers fled the scene, and have not yet been apprehended, though police are examining CCTV footage. No group has claimed responsibility for the shooting, but there have been a series of attacks on security forces in the region in recent weeks. Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, a militant organization associated with the Afghan Taliban who broke its ceasefire with the Pakistani government last month, have claimed credit for several of these.
More than 3000 people attended a memorial service for Siraj on January 31 at All Saints’ Church, where police provided a band of protection. At the same church, on September 22, 2013, 127 people were killed, and another 160 injured when two suicide bombers detonated themselves outside the church. Tehreek-e-Taliban Jundullah, another Taliban-associated group, claimed credit for that attack.
The Most Rev. Azad Marshall, primate of the Church of Pakistan, condemned Sunday’s shooting, tweeting “We demand justice and protection of Christians from the Government of Pakistan.”
Marshall also spoke out about the dangers faced by Christians in Pakistan shortly after being elected as the church’s leader last May, and has pushed for stronger legal protections against the forced conversion to Islam and marriage of Christian girls.
The Archbishop of Canterbury responded to the news, tweeting: “As we mark Candlemas today, we pray for the light of Christ’s justice, hope and peace for our sisters and brothers in the Church of Pakistan.”
Hina Jilani, chair of Pakistan’s Human Rights Commission condemned the killing, and called for fuller protection for religious minorities. The commission, she said sees the attacks on the priests “as a blatant assault not only on Pakistan’s Christian community but on all religious minorities whose right to life and security of person remains under constant threat.”
In its 2021 report on worldwide Christian persecution, the religious freedom charity Open Doors USA ranked Pakistan as the nation “where Christians face the most violence.” The charity estimates that 309 Christians were martyred in the country between November 2019 and October 2020, and that about 1000 Christian girls were forced into marriage with Muslim men. The country’s severe blasphemy law, which criminalizes insulting the prophet Muhammad, is sometimes invoked against Christians in unrelated disputes.