The Terror Targets Christians<br>Guest Writer: Dr. Ishtiaq Ahmed


On September 25, 2002, gunmen entered the offices of the Idara-e-Amn-o-Insaf (Institute for Peace and Justice), a Pakistani Christian charity located in the country's biggest city, Karachi. Victims were tied up in chairs with their hands behind their

Pakistani Information Minister Nisar Memon condemned the attack, saying those who carried it out were enemies of Pakistan. He also extended the assurance that Pakistan's cooperation with the world community in the war against terrorism would continue. In subsequent statements, the police and even General Pervez Musharraf have suggested that the Indian intelligence agency, the Research &

Analysis Wing (R&AW), could be behind the latest killings. However, senior Pakistani journalist M.B. Naqvi has suggested that the killers are probably militant Islamists. This month, police in Karachi had arrested 23 members of Harkat-ul-Mujahedeen Al-Almi, which is believed to be behind many of the attacks in recent months. There is no doubt that General Musharraf has not been able to crush all the militants, and reports of various assassination attempts on him have also been circulating in the Press. It is widely suspected that the militants continue to receive help and protection from disgruntled elements within the Army and the secret services, though the possibility of a coup against Musharraf remains remote.

3.8 million Christians constitute some 2.5 per cent of Pakistan's total population. Concentrated mainly in the Punjab and in the port city of Karachi, most of them belong to the poorest sections of society. Mission hospitals and schools have been the main avenue for social mobility for those among them who succeed in getting an education. Very few openings are possible for them in the mainstream public and private sectors, where religious and caste prejudices against them abound.

The climate against the minorities in Pakistan began to harden during the regime of General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq (1977-88). He introduced a system of separate electorates in 1985 under which Christians and other non-Muslims voted separately for reserved seats for non-Muslims in the various legislative assemblies. The Blasphemy Law of 1986 made any insult to Islam or the Prophet Muhammad a penal offence punishable with death. Over the years, many Christians have been charged with blasphemy, and although death sentences passed in the lower courts have been commuted to lesser sentences or acquittals, the general atmosphere has become increasingly hostile. Violent attacks on Christian churches and property have been occurring since the late 1980s.

General Musharraf, who captured power in a coup on October 12, 1999, was widely believed to favour a modern type of Islam, and he initially made some remarks in that direction. This resulted in loud protests from the Islamists who had been enjoying state patronage for many years. The result was that Musharraf quickly retreated to a policy of inaction vis-à-vis the various Islamist groups. These extremists had, for years, been operating in Afghanistan and Indian-administered Kashmir. Almost all of them adhered to a puritanical type of militant Sunni Islam. The Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) and the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen (HuM) were the biggest among these. They openly conducted their propaganda and recruited cadres from bases in various parts of Pakistan, and the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) and some senior army officers were directly involved in the activities of these groups.

After September 11, 2001, General Musharraf decided to abandon the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, and Pakistan joined the anti-terrorism coalition. The Americans were offered all help, including access to military airfields and seaports. Such a dramatic reversal of policy was greatly resented by the Islamists who organized mass protests all over Pakistan. Things came to a head on October 7, when the bombing of Afghanistan began. The fall of the Taliban regime and the liquidation of the Al Qaeda network on Afghan territory made the Pakistani Islamists look for revenge. They began to target native Christians and Westerners.

Thus, on October 28, 2001, gunmen opened fire on Christian worshippers in Bahawalpur, a town in southern Punjab. 16 Christians were killed and many injured. The culprits managed to escape and were never captured. On March 17, 2002 a grenade attack took place on a Protestant church in a heavily guarded diplomatic quarter of Islamabad, resulting in the death of five people. Among the dead were an American woman who worked at the US embassy and her 17-year-old daughter. On May 8, 2002, a suicide bomber killed 11 French Engineers. On June 14, a bomb exploded outside the US Consulate in Karachi, killing 12 Pakistanis. On August 9, assailants hurled grenades at worshippers leaving a church on the grounds of a Presbyterian hospital in Taxila, 25 miles northwest of Islamabad. Four nurses were killed and 25 people wounded. Four days earlier, attackers had raided a Christian school 40 miles east of Islamabad. Six persons were killed in that outrage.

Western governments, church leaders and human rights organizations have protested against the continuing violence against Christians and Westerners in Pakistan. The European Union and the United Nations have expressed great concern over the fact that Pakistan has been converted into a base by terrorists. The reaction from Washington, however, has been more muted. It seems that the Americans do not want to destabilize the present Pakistani government, whose cooperation in the campaign against Al Qaeda has been to their full satisfaction.

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