Pakistani Catholics volunteer to protect churches against terrorist attacks
AS EASTER APPROACHES, Catholics who volunteer to provide security for churches around the country have begun participating in meetings at local police stations to protect parishioners. Feast day Masses have been a concern since the suicide bombing in the crowded Gulshan-e-Iqbal Park of Lahore on Easter 2016. The attack left at least 72 people dead, most of whom were women and children. In 2017, a teenager was captured in a military raid on an Islamic State cell in Lahore. She confessed that she was to be deployed as a suicide bomber at a church in Lahore on Easter. William Arif Khan, who oversees the 15 security volunteers at Sacred Heart Cathedral of Lahore, told Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) about the challenges he faces in protecting churchgoers.
“For the past 12 years, I have been leading young men dedicated to support the 12 security guards stationed at the cathedral. Their ages range from 14 to 32. We don’t expect any rewards. I just want to organize these young people who guard Sunday Mass from 8am to 11am.
“The volunteers are equipped with metal detectors. The police have allowed us to keep some licensed weapons on church premises; but mostly either my deputy or I are armed with pistols. I cater to the volunteers’ needs, like giving them water and juice in the summer and hot tea in the winter. All of them are on the job and dedicate their holiday to the Church.
“Meetings, aimed at improving the routine of security volunteers, are held after every two months. We are also planning to add a few female volunteers to check the women’s purses. Similar teams have been engaged by other Catholic churches. Muslim media professionals also contact us to facilitate the coverage of big event Masses.
“At least 25 policemen, including two women officials, are deployed for Masses on Easter, Christmas and New Year’s. They train our security volunteers a week before about how to manage a terrorist attack. Walk-through gates and snipers are used to provide security for the Masses. Senior police officers, including the inspector general of the Punjab police, also make surprise appearances at these special Masses.
“Last Christmas, the Lahore deputy police commissioner distributed packets of sweets among children. Archbishop Sebastian Shaw of Lahore usually honors senior police officials for providing security at event masses. They are offered flower bouquets in the cathedral amid thundering applause and they are invited for lunch at the bishop’s house. Security arrangements have strengthened Church ties with local police.
“About two decades ago, fights were common at Easter and Christmas vigils. Sadly, most of them were caused by youngsters of our own community. Some even refused cooperating with our team in the early days of the implementation of church security. Especially visitors from other provinces don’t understand our protocols. Now everybody knows us in the community. Our experience enables us to spot the outsiders.
“Everybody is afraid of the terrorists. But we stand for the One who protects us all. Our faith tells us that God won’t let us down. Therefore, we perform our duties with complete passion and avoid negative thinking.”