Relaymedia

Scared Pakistani Christians Avoid Church

Dec 30, 2002 02:14 PM EST

CHIANWALA, Pakistan -- Frightened Christians stayed away from Sunday services in this tiny Pakistani village after a deadly Christmas Day attack here killed three girls and wounded 13 others. Many said they were too traumatized to return to their church.

"There are no Sunday services in the church because people can't bring themselves to visit it," said the Rev. Rehmat Asim, head of the Protestant congregation, outside his simple, cottage-sized church. "They're in shock."

Two assailants in burqas--the all-encompassing garment worn by women in some Islamic countries--burst into the white cement church Dec. 25, tossing grenades at about 40 worshippers. Four days later, blood still stained the church floors and walls.

"Nobody has visited it after the attack and I do not have the courage to wash the church because it was such a big tragedy," Asim said.

Six people have been arrested and five others are being sought.

One of those detained was local Islamic cleric Mohammed Afzar, who had allegedly told his congregation to kill Christians just days before the attack in Chianwala, about 40 miles northwest of Lahore.

The suspects are believed to be affiliated with the outlawed organization Jaish-e-Mohammed, or Army of Mohammed, which is known to have links with al-Qaida and to have trained its operatives in neighboring Afghanistan.

No charges have been filed and police Sunday didn't sound optimistic.

"There is no major breakthrough yet, but we are still investigating," said Shahid Iqbal, chief of police in Sialkot, the district headquarters for Chianwala.

Arif Masih, a 26-year Pakistani Christian in this dirt-poor village that is home to mainly Muslim farm workers said she has been frightened for months by Afzar, the cleric.

"He had been announcing since the Sept. 11 attacks in the U.S. that it is religiously rewarding to kill Christians and it is obligatory for every Muslim to eat a Christian for breakfast every day," she said.

She says Christians are now more afraid than ever.

"Most members of the Muslim community here are hard-liners," she said. "We had been feeling insecure already. But now the insecurity has increased many-fold."

There are 3.8 million Christians in this predominantly Muslim nation of 140 million people. The government has condemned the attack.

Saleema Bibi, 90, whose 9-year-old granddaughter Najma was killed in the attack, said she could still hear ringing in her ears from the powerful blasts of the grenades.

"It is all still painful and unbearable for me," she said, adding her granddaughter was "laughing and frolicking" on her way to church the day of the attack.

Others in the village recalled the horror immediately after the assault.

"People shouted that somebody had attacked the church," said Ferozan Bibi, whose 15-year-old daughter Razia Bibi was killed. "I ran and found the church and the girls engulfed by smoke and dust. Razia was laying at its doorsteps."

The government said Thursday it would pay $1,700 to relatives of each of the three girls killed, and $430 to each of the wounded.

By Albert H. Lee
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