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Akhtar Soomro/Reuters/Landov

Goes with the terrortory

Pakistan | Osama bin Laden took sanctuary in a region surrounded by longstanding, if scattered, Christian outposts. They plan to carry on despite an altered landscape

Issue: "Dating and courtship confusion," June 4, 2011

Some workers at Pakistan's Bach Christian Hospital heard explosions and rapid gunfire in the early morning hours of May 2. Others say they slept right through the U.S. attack that resulted in the death of Osama bin Laden.

The 50-bed hospital is only a few miles from the compound where the al-Qaeda leader had for years taken refuge in the Himalayan foothills city of Abbottabad. Besides a terrorist safe haven, the region north of Islamabad along the Karakoram Highway-an area of rugged and beautiful extremes that traces the route of the ancient Silk Road that once linked Europe to China-also is home to some of Pakistan's oldest Christian missions.

Christian missionaries introduced chicken farms to Abbottabad 50 years ago as a way to provide needed protein to a poor rural population. Now hundreds of poultry houses line the countryside, along with fields of wheat, corn, potatoes, and other vegetables. Today the military runs many of the agricultural operations in the area, as well as tea plantations and grain businesses: With ample rain and mild temperatures at a moderately high altitude, the region can manage three growing seasons per year.

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Bach Christian Hospital opened in 1956 in the town of Qalandarabad, 6 miles from the city center of Abbottabad, where many of the hospital staff reside. Started by U.S. physicians, Bach is supported by The Evangelical Alliance Mission (TEAM), a Wheaton, Ill., group. "Today was business as usual at the hospital," chief executive officer Luke Cutherell emailed to friends and supporters on May 2. But he also asked for prayers "for this country and for safety for the work here."

Many Christian institutions and churches in Pakistan closed following news of bin Laden's death, and Pakistani officials recommended they beef up security. Despite a long history of providing needed services-particularly medical care and education-Christian groups, even Pakistani-run ones, are viewed as sympathetic to Western interests and to the United States. And as al-Qaeda's presence in Pakistan's northern tier has grown, longstanding missions have come under assault by militants.

In 2002 militants attacked Murree Christian School, about 45 miles by road (a two-and-a-half hour drive) southeast of Abbottabad. Gunmen killed six Pakistani workers at the school and wounded four. But the attack terrorized 150 students attending class at the school, which opened in 1956, and Murree was forced to close for a year. That same week, militants attacked the Christian Hospital of Taxila, killing four nurses and wounding 25 people. Presbyterian missionaries started the 80-year-old hospital, 40 miles from Murree, but at the time of the attack Pakistanis were running it with no foreign staff. Several of the men later arrested and charged for both attacks had received training in bin Laden's Afghanistan camps.

Suicide bombings and similar attacks across Pakistan have killed more than 3,000 people since 2007, according to Compass Direct News, with locals blaming Taliban and al-Qaeda-linked militants. Now, some are wondering whether bin Laden's presence in the North West Frontier Province, where Abbottabad is located, was responsible for the stepped-up violence. "There have been so many other attacks all throughout this area, especially in Peshawar. One wonders if Osama had anything to do with these," said one medical worker in the province, who is not named for security reasons.

Despite the apparent danger, personnel at many Christian institutions say they've been operating normally in the weeks following bin Laden's death. Cutherell said life at Bach "has been fairly routine except for an influx of foreign news people." For most of his neighbors, bin Laden was not the icon of terror he has become in the West, but there has been anger, he said, over the unilateral action of the United States and embarrassment that nearby military personnel either were complicit or incompetent in knowing bin Laden was near. "For the most part the work of the hospital is greatly appreciated," said Cutherell. "That we provide a good quality of basic care at a minimal cost I think helps us to be seen in a different light from others from the West."

Other institutions say they also are operating normally, including ongoing classes at Murree Christian School. But further north on the Karakoram Highway, Gilgit Eye Hospital has closed, personnel say for six months, for personnel and financial reasons. One difficulty is finding Western specialists willing and able to work there, though since opening in 1995 the eye hospital has treated over 60,000 patients and performed 4,000 cataract procedures. "We depend on getting another team of Westerners together who are committed to the area and to the work," said one physician who just returned to the United States (and asked not to be named for security reasons).

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