Features

A village burns amid shouts of "Allah is great"

International | Christian homes and churches devastated by Muslim rioters

Issue: "Gagged by Tolerance," March 22, 1997

For the first time in 20 years, Pakistanis beginning this month took the day off on Sunday. For two decades, Friday, the Muslim holy day, had been the traditional day off in this officially Islamic country of 140 million people. The change is no bow to the Christian Sabbath, however. It is part of a government effort to increase Pakistan's economic competitiveness. Idle Fridays, said Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, reduced Pakistan's ability to compete on the international market.

Banks and stock exchanges the world over may rest on Sundays, but in Pakistan--as elsewhere--it's no reflection of religious sentiment. The country, which is 96 percent Muslim, is in the midst of violent attacks against Christians that in at least one town have led to the imposition of a curfew.

Two people were killed when an angry Muslim mob descended on Khanewal district, a farming community south of Lahore, last month. Like similar incidents in Indonesia this year, the death toll--in this case, one policeman and one Muslim rioter--is low by comparison to the destruction of property and the terror for those forced to remain in the predominantly Christian villages of this region.

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Rioting began when a mob of 30,000 to 60,000 Muslims entered the town of Shantinagar after dubious reports that pages of the Koran had been set on fire by Christians and thrown into a mosque there. Mullahs, or Islamic teachers, announced news of the desecration and encouraged Muslims to take revenge on Christians. "It might sound implausible," a local Christian leader told a reporter for the London Daily Telegraph. "But you have got to forget your secular way of thinking."

The rioters set fire to homes and churches. They looted businesses and destroyed livestock, fruit trees, and other crops. Those who have visited the affected areas say the destruction is much higher than initial reports suggested. According to one eyewitness account, 1,800 homes and 13 churches were destroyed.

"With the full support of the local police," said a local Christian worker who goes by the name of 'Jonah,' "Christian villages were looted; jewelry, household goods, livestock, expensive clothing, and machinery including personal transport were taken. What these looters could not take, they burnt. Fields were also destroyed and burnt."

The initial attack lasted less than a day before the army was called into Shantinagar to restore order and impose a curfew. That, however, was no guarantee of safety: Some say that police handed grenades and provided bombs to the Muslims. Those who were affected by the violence and suspected police complicity were not relieved by the state action. "There is a spirit of helplessness and hopelessness in the system and in people," reported Jonah.

In a normally quiet farming area of 3,000 people, getting over the shock will be as difficult as picking up the pieces. Walter Jilal now lives with his wife and six children in a tent in the courtyard of what was their home. The house was burned only after most of its contents were stolen. They say they have nothing left but the clothes on their backs and bedding sent by other Christian communities in Pakistan. He and his family attended a church founded by the Salvation Army; it's now a mass of blackened walls and smashed glass. The ceiling fans inside are contorted from the fire's heat, and outside only ashes remain from a pile of Bibles and songbooks that were burned.

For Mr. Jilal, his memories speak as loudly as his present surroundings. Like others, he remembers the crowd roaring, "Allah is great!" as it came into the town. "They were laughing and shouting: 'Where is your Jesus now? Bring him to put out the fire,'" he said.

Some in this ethnically Christian area want to strike back, and a group called Soldiers of Christ was reportedly forming in response to the Muslim-led incident. Others cautioned against resorting to the art of their attackers. "Animosity is a highly refined art in Pakistan," said Paul Meiners, who traveled to Pakistan last week as regional director for Africa and Muslim ministries for Mission to the World. He did not travel to the affected areas but did meet with church leaders from there to discuss ways outside organizations could help.

"This has not happened before," said Mr. Meiners, "but Christians are openly treated as less than citizens." Many have come from Hindu backgrounds where they were part of the lower-caste structure. Their worship practices set them apart (although most attended church services on Friday in accordance with cultural customs), and rising prosperity has fueled resentment.

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