Attacks in Pakistan Target Minority Muslim Sect

BY Larisa Epatko  May 28, 2010 at 5:45 PM EST


Pakistani police in Lahore help an injured colleague. Photo by Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images

Gunmen and suicide bombers attacked two mosques filled with Ahmadi worshipers in Lahore, Pakistan, on Friday, killing at least 80 people, taking hostages and engaging in firefights with police.

The assaults on the mosques attended by Ahmadis occurred minutes apart in two neighborhoods in Lahore — Model Town and Garhi Shahu. Ahmadis are a minority Muslim sect viewed by some as heretics for saying their leader is a prophet who came after Muhammad, while a core Islamic belief is Muhammad was the last prophet.

The Pakistani government declared Ahmadis non-Muslims in the 1970s, and since then they have reported incidents of persecution and violence in the country. Friday’s coordinated attacks were the deadliest against the group.

In Garhi Shahu, Luqman Ahmad, 36, said he was sitting and waiting for prayers to start when he heard gunshots and then an explosion, so he lay down and closed his eyes, the Associated Press reported.

“It was like a war going on around me. The cries I heard sent chills down my spine,” Ahmad said. “I kept on praying that may God save me from this hell.”

Saleem Ulhaq Khan was inside the mosque in Model Town and said he saw one of the attackers enter the sermon hall, according to the BBC.

“I went upstairs and I found a room with a bed, I hid under the bed. I was too scared to leave, even after the firing had stopped,” he said.

Time magazine reported that the Pakistani Taliban texted several reporters taking responsibility for the attacks.

“It’s a reminder to the nation that Pakistan will achieve its destiny only after we get rid of the worst type of extremism and fundamentalism,” Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif told a news conference. “The entire nation will fight this evil.”

Kim Barker, a press fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said sectarian violence growing in Pakistan over the past several years coincides with a rise in fundamentalism and extremism there.

And by targeting sites in Lahore, considered “the central power city” of Pakistan in the heart of Punjab province, the militants feel they can make more of an impact than in other cities, she said.

The siege also follows an outcry in Pakistan over a Facebook user setting up a page for visitors to post caricatures of the prophet Muhammad. In response, the Pakistani government blocked Facebook and several other Web sites in the country, sparking street protests, said Aoun Sahi, a Daniel Pearl fellow at the Wall Street Journal who is from Lahore, Pakistan.

“There is a growing momentum to protect the sanctity of Muhammad,” and the Taliban might have thought this is the time to strike, he said.