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FLASH ALERT: PAKISTAN’S CATHOLIC CHURCHES THREATENED BY TERRORISTS AFTER QURAN BURNING IN SWEDEN

Iris Hautaniemi Forsberg, Ludovica Leccese, Gabriel Helupka, Lydia Baccino, Benedetta Bisaccia, CENTCOM/AFRICOM, Extremism, and WATCH/GSOC Teams

Cameron Munoz, Senior Editor

July 5, 2023



Pakistan[1]


The Counterterrorism Group (CTG) is issuing a FLASH ALERT to officials and members of Pakistan’s Catholic Churches, along with other Christians, following threats aimed at the Church. Officials from the Catholic Bishops Conference of Pakistan (PCBC) and the National Commission for Justice and Peace (NCJP) have notified authorities of threats from the Sunni terrorist group, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), translated as the Army of Jhangvi. The group is calling for revenge by committing suicide attacks on Christians, claiming it will make Pakistan “a hell for Christianity.”[2] These revenge threats come after an incident in Stockholm, Sweden, where an individual tore up and burnt a Quran outside Stockholm’s central mosque.[3] Father Khadid Rashid Asi Faisalabad, diocesan Director of the Commission for Interfaith Dialogue, has urged all priests to contact their local police stations for added security for their parishes, convents, schools, and other related departments. Officials repressing the Catholic Churches have publicly condemned the actions in Sweden while referencing the previous anti-Christian surge in the Punjab province following the allegations of a desecrated Quran in 2009.[4]


CTG is on HIGH alert for the Christian population and Catholic Churches in Pakistan following the public burning of a Quran in Stockholm, Sweden. The event will VERY LIKELY increase the possibility of an attack against Catholic Churches and the Christian population, VERY LIKELY exacerbating the vulnerability of the Catholic minority in Pakistan and further increasing the unstable security environment. Attacks will LIKELY involve mass shootings, suicide bombings, the use of vehicles in densely populated venues, or other explosives targeting places with a high concentration of Catholic individuals. Protests attended by Christians or places of worship are VERY LIKELY a primary target.


On July 1, LeJ released a statement threatening to make Pakistan “a hell for Christianity” following the Quran burning in Stockholm, Sweden, on June 29. The group called for their supporters to execute suicide attacks against Christians to avenge the Stockholm event. Pakistani authorities have received calls from the PCBC and NCJP about increased protection after the threats, and meetings between police and local Catholic leaders took place during the last few days.[5] The threats come after a man tore up and burnt a Quran outside a mosque in central Stockholm on June 29, during the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha, an act allowed under freedom of speech laws in Sweden.[6] The event in Stockholm sparked protests and condemnations from Muslim countries worldwide. The Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), which consists of 57 member states, held an unconventional meeting in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia on July 2, where they agreed that the international community needed to provide measures for protecting the Quran from desecration.[7] Pakistani Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif called for all political parties to participate in nationwide protests against the event in Stockholm on July 7, called Yaum-i-Taqaddus Quran, a day to “uphold the Quran’s sanctity”.[8]


Since 1996, LeJ has operated in Pakistan, aiming to establish a Sunni Islamic state and eliminate Shiite influences. They also advocate for the destruction of other religions like Christianity.[9] Their main targets are minority groups in Pakistan, like the Shiites and Christians. Common tactics of LeJ include armed attacks and suicide bombings. The group receives funding from wealthy donors in Pakistan and private firms in Saudi Arabia.[10] After a rapid increase in suicide attacks throughout 2023, LeJ's threat to carry out such attacks aligns with this growing trend in Pakistan. Data shows that Pakistan has seen 13 suicide attacks in the first six months of 2023, resulting in 142 deaths. Comparatively, 2022 saw only five suicide attacks within the same timeframe. This increase in the frequency of suicide bombings is part of the general 80% increase in militant violence within the region.[11]


LeJ’s statement will very likely prompt other Sunni jihadist groups in Pakistan targeting minority Shiite and Christian communities, like the Islamic State – Khorasan Province (ISKP), to issue similar threats and carry out attacks. This will very likely significantly raise the risk of collaboration between like-minded jihadist groups to execute the attack threats, likely increasing the chances of and probability of a successful attack. A collaborative effort by multiple motivated anti-Christian and anti-Shiite jihadist groups very likely amplifies the threat to these communities. The threat is very likely augmented through an increased risk of sharing resources, intelligence, explosive devices, weapons, and operational capabilities, likely enhancing the effectiveness of a potential attack. A potential attack by teaming jihadist groups will very likely garner more media attention, likely inspiring the groups to gain more reaction, renown, and revenge against minority communities through online threats and attack attempts.


The increased frequency of suicide attacks will very likely foster an environment of fear among minority communities, which LeJ will likely exploit. Christian and Shiite communities will almost certainly feel vulnerable due to the fear of a suicide attack. This distress will likely result in a restriction of movement, avoidance of displaying their faith in public spaces, and a sense of vulnerability while going about daily activities. There is a roughly even chance that this will lead to a sense of isolation and marginalization among minority communities. Developing these senses will likely increase the risk of hampering the community's ability to engage openly in their faith practices and cultural traditions without fear of attack. Further desecration of Qurans will very likely amplify LeJ’s anger, likely leading them to actively seek to influence the Sunni Muslim community with stronger anti-Christian sentiments and outrage. They will likely try to undermine interfaith relations and create divisions between Christians and Sunni Muslims. This will likely lead LeJ to intensify its efforts to disrupt the coexistence between Christians and Sunni Muslims in Pakistan. LeJ will likely launch a concerted public campaign that seeks to achieve this goal and encourage other like-minded groups to join their campaign.


The growing number of suicide attacks in Pakistan is very likely straining law enforcement’s resources, likely making it more challenging to sustainably secure a majority of vulnerable locations and large crowds. The lack of resources will likely lead to limitations for law enforcement in initiating coordinated emergency response plans over an extended time. LeJ’s potential collaboration with other groups will very likely make it difficult for law enforcement to anticipate and prevent every potential threat. Law enforcement will likely need to prioritize the allocation of resources or will require continuous coordination and intelligence gathering while balancing limited time and resources. These needs will likely exacerbate challenges to monitor credible threats and secure all minority religious sites effectively. LeJ will likely adapt its suicide bombing tactics, such as concealment and shared tactics with other like-minded terrorist groups to stay ahead of and evade law enforcement's security measures. Future attacks from LeJ on minority communities will likely require increased adaptability from Pakistani law enforcement and necessitate a long-term enhancement of counter-terrorism strategies, surveillance, and community engagement to adapt to a changing landscape.


Local and international Pakistani Christian churches and organizations will very likely persistently condemn Quran burnings to promote solidarity, religious tolerance, and peaceful coexistence among Muslim and Christian communities. They will likely call on Swedish authorities and international organizations like the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) to prevent further acts of desecration against religious texts, likely saying it promotes extremism, creates tensions between religions and governments, and inspires similar destructive behavior. Pakistani Christian entities will very likely raise the alarm over a perceived lack of action from Pakistan to protect Pakistani Christians, likely demanding Pakistani authorities immediately implement measures to safeguard Christian places of worship and community centers. They will also likely encourage the UNHRC to pressure the Pakistani government to implement these safety measures, likely saying urgent action is necessary to protect Christian human rights and avoid living in persistent fear of a LeJ attack.


Quran burnings will almost certainly continue in Sweden, particularly outside of embassies and during Muslim holidays. This will likely continue to increase anti-Western and anti-Christian sentiments among Muslims and spread the threat against Christians to other countries. As condemnations from Muslim states, companies, and high-level individuals increase as Quran burnings continue in Western states, more individuals will very likely feel frustrated and angry about the inability to stop it. The Quran burnings will very likely be used as propaganda to present Western societies as enemies of Islam and increase recruitment to LeJ and other regional Islamist terrorist organizations. More extremist Muslims with anti-Western sentiments are likely to join terrorist organizations. There will likely be a boost in funding for these organizations from private companies and individuals that violently oppose the desecration of the Quran.


CTG recommends that the Pakistani government take immediate steps to ensure the safety and protection of religious minorities by increasing security forces and police presence in Christian neighborhoods and places of worship. Law enforcement should also increase the screening of suspicious persons near Christian neighborhoods and places of worship. CTG also recommends that the Pakistani government and religious leaders promote dialogue and religious tolerance among religious communities. CTG advises that media outlets avoid promoting hate speech, rather promoting the need for dialogue, tolerance, respect, and cooperation between Muslims and Christians. CTG encourages the Pakistani Intelligence Bureau (IB), in collaboration with Western intelligence agencies, to monitor the online activity of LeJ and its sympathizers. CTG recommends the Christian and Shiite communities in Pakistan, particularly in places of worship and protest areas, exercise extreme caution in the coming days, especially when displaying visible signs or attire of their faith. CTG recommends that the Pakistani government implement targeted programs to counter extremist ideologies promoting violence or intolerance. CTG suggests local communities, schools, and governments invest in education, social programs, and religious leadership training that emphasizes peaceful interpretations of religious teachings. CTG recommends establishing an emergency hotline accessible to provide immediate assistance dedicated explicitly to reporting threats or incidents targeting religious minorities. CTG’s CENTCOM and Extremism analytical teams will continue to analyze and monitor any further developments, such as statements, threats, or attacks undertaken by LeJ or like-minded terrorist groups in Pakistan. These teams will work closely with CTG’s OSINT and Digital Targeter program to gather additional information in real-time and warn the public in the event of threat escalation or attacks. CTG’s Worldwide Analysis of Threats, Crime, and Hazards (WATCH) team will continue to gather accurate, unbiased, and truthful information on emerging global threats and terrorist attacks through CTG’s Daily Threat Activity Report (DTAR) on our Counter Threat Center website.


CTG assesses that the current threat climate is HIGH given the recent Quran burning incident in Sweden and the subsequent threats issued by LeJ. Religious minorities, particularly Christians who have been targeted in the past for their perceived association with Western values, are at high risk. The threats are considered high risk due to their potential to incite extremist ideologies and provoke retaliatory actions. The impact of media attention and online threats will likely inspire other extremist groups to join the cause, likely perpetuating a cycle of violence. LeJ will likely collaborate with like-minded extremist groups to carry out successful attacks against Christian communities in Pakistan. The cycle of violence perpetuated by these threats and attacks will likely create a climate of fear and instability within the affected communities. The ongoing Quran burnings in Sweden, including the one in January that also triggered protests and international calls for attacks, will likely fuel anti-Christian sentiments among Muslims. This will likely contribute to recruiting individuals into terrorist organizations and increased funding from those opposing Quran desecration.


Analysis indicates a HIGH PROBABILITY of violent attacks against Christians in Pakistan after the Quran burnings in Sweden, very likely involving several different terrorist organizations. As the Quran burnings persist, there is a HIGH PROBABILITY that terrorist groups will use this in propaganda to increase recruitment and funding in Muslim countries. There is a HIGH PROBABILITY that this threat will spread to other countries in the region with active Islamist terrorist organizations. Due to the general rise in terrorist attacks in Pakistan, law enforcement will VERY LIKELY meet challenges in deterring this threat, which VERY LIKELY will be exploited by the terrorist groups.

 

[1] Pakistan by Google Maps

[2] Church in Pakistan seeks protection following Quran burning in Sweden, Vatican News, July 2023, https://www.vaticannews.va/en/church/news/2023-07/church-in-pakistan-seeks-protection-following-quran-burning.html

[4] Church in Pakistan seeks protection following Quran burning in Sweden, Vatican News, July 2023, https://www.vaticannews.va/en/church/news/2023-07/church-in-pakistan-seeks-protection-following-quran-burning.html

[5] Church in Pakistan seeks protection following Quran burning in Sweden, Vatican News, July 2023, https://www.vaticannews.va/en/church/news/2023-07/church-in-pakistan-seeks-protection-following-quran-burning.html

[6] Protester burns Koran at Stockholm mosque on Eid holiday, Reuters, June 2023, https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/swedish-police-approve-small-anti-koran-demonstration-mosque-2023-06-28/

[7] Muslim group says measures needed to prevent Koran desecration, Reuters, July 2023, https://www.reuters.com/world/organisation-islamic-cooperation-calls-measures-against-koran-burning-2023-07-02/

[8] Pakistan PM Shehbaz Sharif calls for nationwide protests against Quran’s desecration in Sweden, The Indian Express, July 2023, https://indianexpress.com/article/world/pakistan-pm-shehbaz-sharif-calls-for-nationwide-protests-against-qurans-desecration-in-sweden-8756132/

[9] Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), Stanford University Center for International Security and Cooperation, July 2018, https://cisac.fsi.stanford.edu/mappingmilitants/profiles/lashkar-e-jhangvi-lej

[10] Who is Lashkar-e-Jhangvi?, Voice of America, October 2016, https://www.voanews.com/a/lashkar-e-jhangvi/3565322.html

[11] Militant Ambush Kills 2 Pakistan Soldiers Amid Spike in Terrorism, VOA News, July 2023, https://www.voanews.com/a/militant-ambush-kills-2-pakistan-soldiers-amid-spike-in-terrorism-/7164593.html

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