A police officer who was doing security work for a Catholic school for girls in north-eastern Pakistan opened fire on a group of teachers and students, killing two young girls, one of whom was only nine years old. Five other girls, and one adult woman were injured in the shooting, which occurred on 16 May in Sangota, in the Swat Valley, at a school run by the Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, in the Diocese of Islamabad-Rawalpindi.
The police officer had been hired in February to provide security at the school and has been arrested. An inquiry is ongoing.
In the wake of the incident, Archbishop Joseph Arshad, of Islamabad-Rawalpindi, said: “We feel threatened and insecure in the midst of the growing terrorism in the country”, adding, “this is regrettable. We demand that the guard be punished, to avoid similar incidents in the future.”
For his part, Archbishop Sebastian Shaw, of Lahore, who is currently in Portugal, in statements to the international foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), spoke out against the aggressiveness of groups that are opposed to the education of girls and said that the authorities must do more to keep schools safe.
“We Catholics, and Christians in general, run some girls-only schools. And some people are against the education of women, in Pakistan or anywhere. This man was in charge of security for the children, the staff, the parents, everybody. That is what he was paid for. But in a moment of madness, he did this because the school teaches girls. This shows how aggressive these groups that are opposed to women’s education can be.”
“Everybody has a right to an education”
The Archbishop of Lahore added, however, that this attack will not dampen the Church’s commitment to provide an education for everybody, especially the more vulnerable, as it has done consistently until now. “We will continue to educate. Wherever there is a man or a woman, a boy or a girl. We are all humans, and all humans have a right to education. Everybody has a right to become a better person, to develop their personality, to grow”, he stated. Archbishop Shaw admits that the situation did, however, create an atmosphere of some insecurity, “which is why the Government has to do more to protect the institutions and the people who are committed to education and health”.
“Threatened and insecure”
The school that was attacked, run by the Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary since 1962, was overrun by Islamic fundamentalists in 2009. Fortunately, the sisters managed to evacuate the building in time, thereby avoiding any personal harm, but the school only reopened in 2012. Prior to that, a radical Islamic group – Jan Nisaran-e-Islam – threatened the school, based on false accusations that the religious sisters were trying to convert the 800 or so Muslim students to Christianity.
The Church in Pakistan has asked all Catholic schools in the country to carry out a day of prayer in solidarity with the victims of the attack.
Religion continues to be grounds for discrimination in Pakistan. According to ACNs 2021 Religious Freedom Report, “discrimination, blasphemy, kidnappings of women and girls, and forced conversions continue to haunt the daily life of religious minorities” in the country.