A Christian worship service in Pakistan's Muslim-dominated city of Karachi turned frightening when unidentified men burst into Christ Awami Church on New Year's Day, demanding that worship stop. The congregation resisted, and the assailants retaliated: Church members say the men desecrated Bibles and a cross on the wall, destroyed hymnals, smashed windows, and dumped garbage on the church grounds.
The attack wasn't isolated. Christians at two other Protestant churches in the city reported assaults during the same week: Church-goers in the Zia neighborhood said attackers broke the church door, shattered windows, and threw garbage into the church. Congregants in the Golimar community said a group of men threatened them during a Sunday night meeting, but local police intervened.
Michael Javaid, a Pakistani minority-rights activist and a former member of the region's local parliament, believes militants attacked the churches in retaliation for Israel's three-week offensive in Gaza. "It has been a common practice to attack minorities in Pakistan and suppress their voice whenever a U.S.-supported attack is carried out on a Muslim state," Javaid told a local newspaper. "It is illogical. We own Pakistan as much as any Muslim does irrespective of our religious difference."
The Christian minority in Pakistan has long faced discrimination and persecution, including kidnappings, rapes, and imprisonment. A recent upswing in harassment and violence reflects a deepening extremism that threatens both Christians and some Muslims, and poses a grave challenge to President Barack Obama's new administration.
Though Christians face intense threats in Pakistan, Muslims aren't immune to violence. Taliban strongholds along the border with Afghanistan support vicious bands that terrorize communities, including Muslims who don't comply with their brand of Islam. In January, Taliban militants in Pakistan's Swat Valley shot and killed Amjad Islam, a local schoolteacher, for refusing to roll his pant legs above his ankles in the manner of Muhammad. The militants hung Islam's body in the town square and also killed his father.
If Pakistani militants were hoping U.S. pressure in the country would ease under President Barack Obama, the new president has so far disappointed. Obama told U.S. State Department employees that Afghanistan and terrorist strongholds in neighboring Pakistan are "the central front in our enduring struggle against terrorism and extremism," and pledged to double the number of U.S. troops in the region. Less than a week after Obama's inauguration, the U.S. military continued missile strikes on al-Qaeda strongholds in Pakistan.
The president also appointed a special envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan: Richard Holbrooke, an experienced diplomat once dubbed "the bulldozer" for his aggressive approach to mediating conflict in Bosnia. But even Holbrooke was tentative about the task of getting the Pakistani government to fight terrorists within its own borders and maintain a tenuous peace with neighboring India: "It will be a very difficult assignment."
In the meantime, life remains difficult for persecuted groups in Pakistan. Conditions are particularly bleak for Christians in the country's Northwest Frontier Province. Ann Buwalda of the Jubilee Campaign, a Washington-based advocacy group for persecuted Christians, says some Christians face criminal charges of blaspheming Islam. Other Christian villages report a rise in "conversion letters"-demands from local militants to convert to Islam or die.
Forced conversions are often brutal: Last November, two Muslim men kidnapped a pair of Christian sisters, ages 18 and 14, raped them, forced them to confess Islam, and gave them Muslim names. Police rescued the girls in January when one found a cell phone on the floor and called for help. Buwalda says such cases aren't uncommon.
Persecution isn't uncommon in other parts of the Islamic world either, and Buwalda says her group is particularly concerned about countries like Iran and Sri Lanka-both on the brink of passing anti-conversion laws.
Buwalda hopes Obama and the new Congress will make religious freedom a priority, and says her organization is already regrouping to form relationships with the new Democratic majority. That means a slew of phone calls, visits, literature, and tenacity: "We need to maintain a constant vigil."