Features

Sunday-morning jihad

International | As the United States takes the anti-terror war to Afghanistan, militants take their war to Pakistan's Christians

Issue: "Homeland insecurity," Nov. 10, 2001

Thanks to satellite technology, news of the Sept. 11 attacks in New York and Washington spread around the globe as rapidly as the events unfolded. Shopkeepers sipping afternoon tea in Pakistan watched live coverage via small black-and-white television sets of the planes flying into the twin towers, one after the other. For Pakistani Christians, simulcast with the news was the uneasy sense that they, too, would come under attack. Anxiety became reality on Oct. 28 when Islamic gunmen burst into a worship service in Bahawalpur and emptied AK-47s on a Protestant congregation just as it was finishing a closing hymn. The attackers killed 18 and wounded at least seven-the worst single massacre of Christians in Pakistan's 54-year history. Christians in Pakistan are a minority, less than 3 percent of the population. As previous governments in recent years allowed radical Islamic groups to grow unchecked, harassment for churchgoers increased. In 1997 a Muslim mob burned down a mostly Christian farming community south of Lahore, destroying nearly 2,000 homes and 13 churches. Those kinds of widespread but isolated assaults forced many Christians to take their worship activities underground. Knowing the radicals' ties to Osama bin Laden, church leaders acted on the assumption that they would be caught in the jihad dragnet. Some left Pakistan shortly after Sept. 11 for the friendlier-if no longer safer-atmosphere of Europe or the United States. Overseas groups took quick action to sever ties-at least visible ones-with evangelistic activities and Pakistani Christians. Campus Crusade shut down its Bright House in Karachi and similar work in other major cities. It closed bank accounts and told workers to stay away from meeting places that could be associated with Christian activity. The International Mission Board, the mission agency for Southern Baptists and largest U.S. sending mission organization, relocated all workers in Pakistan to other parts of central Asia, the Middle East, or Europe. Operation Mobilization continues to support nationals working in Pakistan, but relocated all Americans and other Westerners. Among those who stayed, some have since awakened to find on walls outside their homes and churches graffiti denouncing Christians. In the last two months, they have received bomb scares, phone threats, and ominous letters. When the United States began a military counterattack on neighboring Afghanistan, Urdu language newspapers in Pakistan published threats from unidentified Islamic extremists. For every Afghan who died in U.S.-led strikes, the declarations read, two Pakistani Christians would be killed. They also warned that if bombing of Afghanistan did not stop by mid-November, when the Muslim celebration of Ramadan begins, Pakistani Christians would receive "a bloody Christmas." "Never in living memory has the situation for Christian minorities in the Islamic world been so precarious," warned Patrick Sookhdeo, director of the Wiltshire, England-based Barnabas Fund. What happened on Oct. 28 was like a reel unwinding out of the church leaders' worst nightmares. Four masked gunmen entered the stone church in Bahawalpur and locked the doors behind them. Shouting "Allah-u-Akbar," meaning "God is great," they sprayed churchgoers with rifle rounds. Several members of the congregation found cover in a small room behind the altar. Others pled for mercy from the killers but were ignored. By tradition, men sat to the right and women and children to the left during the service, which was just ending at the time of the attack. One gunman stood over a heap of wounded and dead mothers and children, according to a survivor, "pulling the trigger again and again until the screaming and moaning stopped." Among the dead were four women and several toddlers, as well as nine members of one family. Jamshed Akhtar was killed along with his wife and five children, his brother Javed, and his brother's wife. Church pastor Emmanuel Allah Ditta, a 45-year-old father with four children, was also killed. The carnage took place despite beefed-up security under orders of President Pervez Musharraf. The president met with Christian, Hindu, and Ahmadi leaders on Oct. 9. He assured them his government would protect the lives and property of religious minorities and ordered troops and police posted at church sites. The bearded gunmen who entered the Bahawalpur churchyard shot and killed the Muslim policeman standing guard outside the church. Witnesses said the masked intruders shouted, "Graveyard of Christians-Pakistan and Afghanistan!" and "This is just the start!" The gunmen, six in all, targeted the Church of Pakistan congregation in spite of long-standing tolerance for its activities in Bahawalpur. For 30 years the congregation, which numbered about 100 the day of the attack, has shared a building owned by St. Dominic's Roman Catholic Church. Without its own facilities, the Protestant congregation operated several education projects, including a school for girls in Lahore (now run by the state) and a teacher training institute in Raiwind. It assisted in running two colleges and a hospital in Lahore. The Catholic parish also operates two high schools, educating both Muslims and Christians. Bahawalpur, a city of half a million, is headquarters for Jaish-e Mohammed, an extremist Islamic group listed by the United States as a terrorist organization. The State Department says other Islamic extremist groups are also "very active" in the area. Security experts, including retired Pakistani colonel S.K. Tessler, who chaired the president's Oct. 9 meeting, called the shooting "a security failure." Aware of the setback, Gen. Musharraf made a primetime appearance on nationwide television the evening of Oct. 29 to condemn the church attack. He promised, "Whoever has committed this gruesome act will be brought to book and given exemplary punishment." Overnight, police arrested more than 100 Islamic militants. Church leaders know they have a better answer for jihad, but acknowledge that the killing spree "terrorized the whole Christian community," as an announcement in Pakistan Christian Voice magazine read. Support from overseas groups, normally a given, is also flagging under the threats. "Basically we are waiting and watching," said Operation Mobilization's Lane Powell, "eager to get involved but looking at it almost day by day."

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