Gulf Tension Scares Christians in Pakistan

Dec 31, 1969 07:00 PM EST

LAHORE - Pakistani Christians, many of whom were killed in reprisal attacks after the United States offensive against neighbouring Afghanistan, live in fear of vengeance attacks by Islamists in the event of an attack on Iraq.

Warned Christian leader and war veteran in the south Asian nation, Cecil Chaudhary, " I see terrible things happening if Iraq is invaded, including attacks on our churches and even our homes. Any attack on Iraq is going to signify to the extremists, rightly or wrongly, that this is a war of Christianity against Islam."

Leader of the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance Shahbaz Bhatti claimed 40 Christians had been killed and more than 100 injured in attacks in Pakistan last year, alleging that the government had done nothing to give them protection. " I am against a U.S attack on Iraq for it would not solve anything, but would put at risk the security of minorities in Pakistan. If there is an attack on Iraq, there will be more killings and attacks on Christians" he predicted.

Residents are still living in dread in Chianwali village, 65 miles north-west of Lahore, where the latest Christmas Day grenade attack in a Presbyterian chapel, killed three girls and wounded 13 others. According to villager Iqbal Masih, one of ten Christian families living here among 100 Muslim families, " Qari Muhammad Afzal, (a Muslim prayer leader held for the church attack) has been inciting people through sermons to punish Christians harming Muslims."

Despite heightened security measures ordered last month to protect Christmas celebrations in churches, no policeman was on duty at the Chianwali service. Three local police officers were later suspended for negligence.

Most of the Christians in Chianwali work in small landholdings owned by Muslims. Many of those wounded in the attack have reportedly been resisting discharge from hospital, protesting they were afraid to return to their village.

" Nobody threatened them, but they were very much afraid," said a visitor who spoke to them recently. " They said their children were not attending school, and they were scared to go to the market for daily necessities."

" Islamists believe any act by the U.S is an act by Christians on behalf of Christians against Islam," said social scientist Amjad Iqbal.

An inflammatory leaflet published in Urdu and Arabic, urging Muslims to kill Christians and Westerners on sight, was recently circulated in Balochistan and North West Frontier Province (NWFP), two regions where the hard-line Islamist Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal coalition (MMA) got a majority in last October's elections.

The leaflet, attributed to an obscure separatist group, warned Muslims not to work or mingle with Christians. The government has launched an investigation into this.

The NWFP government has deployed paramilitary forces at churches in the historic town of Peshawar, which boasts five large churches and some 15,000 Christians.

" We have received very extraordinary and specific orders from higher authorities to shoot terrorists at sight," said a police official at the St John's Cathedral here. Ever since the U.S began bombing Afghanistan, many churches also hired the services of private security agencies.

Police in Lahore have arrested four suspected members of an outlawed Islamist group who they said formed part of a cell waging war on westerners and Christians.

Police also seized five hand grenades and four assault rifles during the raid. According to police chief Zubair Nawaz Chattha, " They belong to the banned Lashkar-e-Taiba and have close links with the outlawed Jaish-e-Mohammed."

Significantly, the arrests were made a couple of days after Pakistan President General Pervez Musharraf attended the concluding ceremony of the 125th anniversary of the Lahore Diocese at a cathedral in the city. " The law-enforcers have been upgraded and better trained, in the hope that they will continue to perform their duty more efficiently. The government will take all steps to protect Christians and their institutions," Musharraf declared, condemning the attacks on Christian churches and institutions.

" Those indulging in such acts of terrorism were not friends of Pakistan. They want communal strife in the country and its destabilization," he added.

His assurances did nothing to alleviate the fear among Christians living in remote rural areas. But those working as menial help in Pakistan's cities remain unfazed by the recent attacks. Ilyas Masih, 30, who mops floors at an airlines office in central Lahore, shrugged, " We face as much danger as our Muslim brethren do. We love the country we live in. We are not concerned about what the U.S or any other country does."

However, registration officials report a rise in the number of Christians applying for arms licenses in the country.

The December 25 bombing was the sixth terrorist attack against Christians in Pakistan in the past 15 months. A total of 42 Pakistanis have been killed and another 88 injured in the targeted attacks against Christian churches, schools and hospitals in Pakistan, in apparent retaliation for the Pakistan government's support of offensives by the Christian west against Afghanistan's former Taliban regime and the al-Qaeda movement.

Christianity in Pakistan dates back many centuries to the time when the Apostle St. Thomas is said to have visited the subcontinent. The most recent census pegs the number of Christians in Pakistan at 2.09 million, while the community puts the total figure at four million.

More than 90 per cent of the country's Christians live in the north-Pakistan province of Punjab, making them the largest religious minority here. Approximately 60 per cent of Punjab's Christians reside in villages, and most are economically underprivileged.

In 1997, when a Muslim mob razed the predominantly Christian town of Shanti Nagar in the Punjab province, there was some panic migration, which soon subsided.

By Waqar Mustafa