When It Is Hard to Turn the Other Cheek

I suspect we are going to see more of this. After suicide bombers attacked two churches this month during Sunday worship, leaving 15 worshippers dead and scores injured, Pakistani Christians went on a rampage through the streets of Lahore.

They blocked roads, attacked police and then seized two suspects who were being held in police custody, and beat them both to death.

It is hard to condemn them. When your churches are being bombed and the authorities do nothing, it is difficult to turn the other cheek.

In the words of American scholar Michael Kugelman, who writes regularly for Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper:

This is not how victims usually respond to terror attacks in Pakistan. Typically they grieve quietly, even if defiantly….

[But] many Pakistanis embrace the underlying views of sectarian extremists….In essence, sectarian militants benefit from nationwide reach, ample public support for their views and some support from the state.

The Christians that killed those two men did not commit premeditated murder. They were retaliating, and for a simple reason: like so many other religious minorities in Pakistan, they have been terrified, traumatised and terrorised for too long, and they know the state will not protect them.

So on Sunday, they decided to take matters into their own hands. Out of desperation, they became vigilantes.

We saw something even worse over a year ago, when Muslims seized power in the Central African Republic and began persecuting the Christian majority. In response, groups of Christian vigilantes formed militia groups and launched a wave of murderous attacks on Muslims, forcing thousands to flee.

It may be difficult to condemn such actions – especially the spontaneous retaliation in Pakistan – but condemn them we must. We might argue about when it is permissible for Christians to fight back, but we can surely agree that mob violence is never the answer.

Look at Egypt. Despite continuing attacks on their churches, and a general reluctance by the police to help, Coptic Christians there do not often seek revenge.

I feel they might be a special case. The Coptic church dates back to the earliest days of Christianity, and the Copts have endured many centuries of attack and martyrdom. They have become living proof of the truth of Tertullian’s famous statement, that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.

Christians in other countries do not have that experience. So when suicide bombers attack it is natural to think about reprisals.

And sadly, as violence against Christians escalates, particularly in the Muslim world, I believe that we can almost certainly expect more such retaliation.


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