29 October 2001

"Pakistan and Afghanistan, graveyard of Christians. Allah is Great. This is just the start." - The four gunmen who, with these words, opened fire on the innocent men, women and children praying in St Dominic's Church, Bahawalp

On Wednesday 24 October US planes bombed a training camp outside of Kabul killing 35 members of Harakat ul-Mujahedin including 3 British Muslims and several Pakistanis. Both Harakat ul-Mujahedin and Jaish-e-Mohammad, an extremist group led by Mulana Azhar Masood which is based in Bahawalpur, are linked to Osama bin Laden. Both have also been involved in fighting Indian forces in Kashmir. Muslim leaders have condemned the massacre in Bahawalpur, but blamed it on Indian agents. Bahawalpur is close to the Indian border. The brutal slaughter of Christians at St Dominic's Church may have been coldly calculated to strike a double blow: avenging the deaths of militants in Afghanistan, and provoking increased hostility between Pakistan and India. The gunmen who perpetrated the massacre may also have been aiming to capture or kill some American Christians who were working with the church until recently leaving Pakistan as tension and hostility increased after 11 September.

The Attack

Seventeen Christians and a Muslim policeman were brutally shot and killed in the attack on St Dominic's Roman Catholic Church, Bahawalpur, on Sunday 28 October. Six men arrived on motorbikes at around 9 am during a Church of Pakistan (Protestant) service being held in the Catholic church. Shooting dead one police guard, and injuring another, four men entered the church, bolting it behind them, leaving their accomplices outside to stand watch and shoot any of their victims who managed to escape. Inside the militants opened fire, deliberately aiming first at Rev Emmanuel Masih, who they killed, and then firing into the congregation of some 60 to 100 people for several minutes. Most of the congregation were women and children. "Some begged for mercy," said Elisha, a survivor, "they didn't listen." Another survivor, Shamoon Masih (who was himself shot in the leg and arm), described how, "They had no mercy for the children. They had no mercy for the women. They could see small children were being hit by bullets, but they kept firing." Many struggled desperately to find cover behind the altar or under pews. Amongst the victims were children aged 8, 7 and 2 years old. In one family a father and mother were shot and killed alongside their 12, 10, 8 and 2 year-old daughters and 1 year-old son. Dozens were seriously injured. Father Rocus Tatrias who ran into the church as soon as the gunmen fled, was confronted with a nightmarish scene: "There was blood all over the church, over the altar where people had tried to hide, bodies lying on the ground, people crying and screaming. The church walls were peppered with gunfire."

"This is just the start"

"We have nothing to do with what's going on in Afghanistan, we are innocent people," said one survivor of the massacre in Bahawalpur. A senseless slaughter of this kind has long been feared by Christians in Pakistan who tried to warn the world of the danger they were facing from many Pakistani Muslims who see them as allies of America and the West. Several weeks ago a number of Islamic religious leaders issued a fatwa stating that two Pakistani Christians will be killed for every Muslim who dies during American strikes on Afghanistan. Across the country Christians living in areas of particular tension have been threatened and intimidated. Several have been beaten, at least one killed. Attacks have also occurred against church buildings. In Bahawalpur graffiti threatening Christians had been daubed on the walls near St Dominic's and church members had received threatening phone calls and letters in the days preceding the attack. Across Pakistan police have been posted outside churches, and their number has been increased after police constable Mohammad Saleem was so easily killed outside St Dominic's.

The massacre in Bahawalpur may indeed be "just the start," as the gunmen warned. Across the Islamic world innocent Christian minorities are facing brutal revenge attacks from Muslims furious about the raids on Afghanistan. In the Holy Land a Christian convert from Islam was stabbed to death on 8 October by a supporter of Osama bin Laden who shouted, "You are an apostate." In Kenya two churches were burnt to the ground in Isiolo on 26 September.

In the charred remains were carved the phrases "Allah is Great" and "We Condemn America." In Malaysia, the headquarters of the National Evangelical Christian Fellowship received a package containing suspected anthrax and a threatening letter on 23 October. In Kano, Nigeria, as many as 200 people may have been killed after Muslim anti-US protestors turned on the local Christian population provoking savage rioting on 12 October. In Makassar, Indonesia, Islamic extremists blocked roads and dragged four Christians from their cars, savagely beating them on 23 October in response to a demonstration against Osama bin Laden two days earlier.

Earlier this month Dr Patrick Sookhdeo, International Director of the Barnabas Fund said that, "Never in living memory has the situation for Christian minorities in the Islamic world been so precarious." Now with tension high after the terrible slaughter in Bahawalpur, the situation for Christians looks worse than ever, especially in Pakistan. President Musharraf's promise to bring to justice those responsible and to protect Christians, however welcome, offers little reassurance after the attack in Bahawalpur was carried out with such apparent ease. Sister Anna of St Dominic's says "The community is very fearful and very angry." She wonders, "what will happen next? And will this start to happen in other churches all over Pakistan?" As rumours of the attack spread on Sunday morning Christians began to leave other church services, fearful that they would be next.

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