Features

Light flight

Pakistan | Courage under fire doesn't eliminate hard choices for Christian believers

Issue: "When liberals seize a state," Aug. 31, 2002

Quake survivors say the earth's rumble is easier on the nerves than the quiet just after. Terrorism survivors in Pakistan felt the same way in the days following attacks on a Christian school and a Presbyterian hospital near Islamabad. Murree Christian School officials announced on Aug. 17 that they would close the school for one year rather than continue to operate under threat of another attack from Islamic militants. Masked gunmen stormed the school earlier this month, killing six Pakistanis and wounding four others.

For many Christians, trying to persevere in the face of terrorism apparently aimed at Westerners and Christians in Pakistan has become too costly. That sad fact is clear in this resort city in the Himalayan foothills 25 miles northeast of Islamabad. The decision to close, said school officials, "reflects grave concern that the presence of the school not attract further tragedy or trouble for our Pakistani employees, neighbors, and friends who have been so devastated by this attack."

About 150 students, nearly all children of foreign-aid workers from 20 nations-including the United States-attended the school. Most had just finished recess and returned to classrooms when the gunmen entered the school compound midmorning on Aug. 5. They fired upon guards outside the school gate, killing two. On campus the attackers continued firing indiscriminately, killing the school's receptionist, a cook, a carpenter, and a bystander.

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Students took shelter in their classrooms, benefiting from heightened security and alertness on the part of teachers. Recently installed automatic locks on classroom doors allowed teachers to sequester students as soon as the first shots were heard. A class of sixth-graders was the only group outdoors at that time. The teacher sitting at a picnic table with the class had worked in wartime Afghanistan. He quickly recognized that an armed attack was underway and shepherded students to a second-floor classroom, just before gunmen reached the table where the class had been seated.

The cafeteria and several ground-floor classrooms were empty due to renovations. After the assailants discovered those rooms vacant and failed to break door locks, they jumped a fence, leaving four AK-47s, grenades, and a metal ammunition box in the woods behind the school. Students remained crouched behind closed doors for two hours while soldiers and police searched the campus. High-school students prayed together. In the younger classes, students huddled in small groups, each with a hand on another student's back in a prearranged gesture to comfort and quiet the class.

"It is a matter of thanks to God that no students were injured in any way and that no expatriate staff were injured," noted a school press statement following the attacks.

Thanksgiving carried with it a bitter pill for most of the families and boarding students at the school, which first opened in 1956. Three faculty members and a handful of students left immediately after the attack. But most hoped a shutdown of the school would not be necessary. One American couple said that, without the school, they might be forced to relocate from their ministry in Pakistan altogether. But closure became necessary after the hospital attack in Taxila, only 38 miles from Murree, which took place four days after the school assault.

In that incident, militants fired grenades at a chapel on the grounds of the 80-year-old Christian Hospital of Taxila, killing four nurses and wounding 25 people. One of the attackers also died. Hospital administrator Joseph Lall said the explosion stopped the chapel clock at 7:48 a.m. The chapel was just emptying after its regular morning service. The blast threw Mr. Lall on his side, knocking others to the floor with him. "It was followed by a moment of deep silence. Then the screams started," he said. Outside in a downpour of rain he found "bodies, blood, broken umbrellas, torn-off clothing, blown-off shoes, nurses' white caps." Exploding glass and wood shards injured nearly everyone who attended the service, but the chapel remained standing.

The hospital is affiliated with the Presbyterian churches of Pakistan and draws support from mainline Presbyterians in the United States, Sweden, and Germany. Hospital officials said that's why it was seen as a foreign target linked to the "Christian West."

"I think this is a matter of sadness for our country," said Mr. Lall. "It will cause fear-especially among the Christians. We feel trapped."

Growing insecurity is forcing many Westerners to reassess working in Pakistan. Two attacks on Christian targets preceded the August incidents since the war on terrorism began: Last October gunmen killed 16 people at a church service in Bahawalpur; in March militants attacked the International Church of Islamabad, killing five worshippers (including an American diplomat and her daughter) and wounding over 45 people. Islamic militants in Pakistan have targeted other Westerners-kidnapping and killing Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl and detonating a car bomb outside the U.S. consulate in Karachi that killed a dozen people.

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