PESHAWAR -- Undeterred by militant attacks, Christians and other minority groups in Pakistan expressed their patriotism by arranging a colourful event to celebrate Independence Day (August 14).
The function, held one day earlier at the Diocese of Peshawar -- Church of Pakistan, took place under the aegis of World Relief Germany and Faith Friends for Peace KP, an inter-faith organisation based in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP).
Its aim was to involve minorities in Pakistan's Independence Day celebrations and to convey a message of peace, tolerance and inter-faith harmony.
Christians, Hindus and Sikhs, in addition to a large number of Muslims, participated in the function, which was based on the premise that despite militants' attempts to create dissension, there exists unprecedented unison and cohesion among Pakistan's diverse society.
Escaping confines of fear
Kaka Ram, a retired KP Civil Secretariat official and caretaker of the Hindu Gorakhnath temple in Peshawar, said his clan has lived in Peshawar for the past four or five centuries and has no plans of leaving.
"The faith of our people in the leadership of newly created Pakistan [in 1947] strengthened when [the founder of Pakistan] Quaid-e-Azam [Muhammad Ali Jinnah] announced equal rights and freedom of worship for minority groups residing in the country," he told Pakistan Forward.
"Our community is safe here and has equal rights like any other citizen," Ram, the sarpunch (head) of his clan, said. "I cannot think of migrating from the land that gave me identity in the world as a Pakistani."
"I came here with my grandson to celebrate Independence Day [and to show] that the Hindu community is patriotic and will never abandon Pakistan whatever the conditions may be," he said.
A surge of violence against Hindus in recent years concerned the community, with five temples attacked nationwide in March 2014 alone.
"Improvement in the security situation after successful operations ... against extremism has instilled a sense of confidence among our people by providing us a chance to escape from the confines of fear," said Haroon Sarab Dayal, chairman of All Pakistan Hindu Rights Movement, in reference to the on-going Operation Zarb-e-Azb, which began in June 2014, and other military offensives against terrorists.
"Erasing the indelible effects of ... horrific terrorism incidents in which minority community members perished ... was very difficult, but we deem ourselves fully capable to overcome our fears in the far better law-and-order situation today," he told Pakistan Forward.
"The time is not far away when we will be able to visit our temples twice a day for conducting religious rituals in complete peace and serenity," he said.
Message of tolerance, interfaith acceptance
Militants have targeted Sikhs and Christian places of worship in recent years.
In April 2016, Special Assistant to KP Chief Minister on Minority Affairs Sardar Soran Singh, a Sikh, was gunned down near his home in Buner District.
In September 2013, two suicide bombers attacked worshipers at All Saints Church in Peshawar, killing 127.
In March of the same year, a mob of arsonists fell on Joseph Colony in Lahore and torched about 150 houses of Christians and two churches.
"Celebration of Independence Day in a church by minorities and majority Muslims conveys a message of tolerance and inter-faith acceptance," said Bishop Humphrey Sarfaraz Peters of the Diocese of Peshawar -- Church of Pakistan.
"Minority communities have started celebrating Christmas, Diwalis and Holi, which reflects a mindset that has defied odds, overcome fear and started the perception of a new beginning free of compulsion and suppression," he told Pakistan Forward.
This progress resulted from a growing sense of security among minorities, he said, adding that key factors that guarantee the growth and survival of a community are tolerance and mutual respect.
"The goal of establishing a society that helps all its factions to thrive and survive can be achieved only if we unite and shun differences for the greater interests of the motherland," he said.
"Our unity and cohesion will not only help fend off the designs of enemies, but also will enhance the level of mutual confidence among communities living in Pakistan," Bishop Peters said. "The people of our beloved country have started enjoying fruits of improved law-and-order conditions, and I am hopeful that situation will progress with every passing day."
Darshan Singh, a Sikh employee of the KP Excise Department, said he attended a similar, recent inter-faith function organised by his cousin in Archives Hall Peshawar.
"We are safe and not fleeing Pakistan for fear of extremism," he told Pakistan Forward, adding that he would "rather live and fight here for our survival".
"The participation of minorities in Independence Day celebrations is reminiscent of their patriotism and loyalty for the motherland," said Syed Qasim Ali Shah, the district naib nazim, who attended the function at Diocese of Peshawar -- Church of Pakistan.
"As a born Peshawarite I have not seen such jubilation on Independence Day in the past 15 years," he told Pakistan Forward. "The celebration of this day in such a manner depicts the satisfactory state of law and order, a sense of security among people, and their resolve to fight aggression."