Christmas Season Tense For Pakistan's Christians

Sunday, August 5, 2001

by Barbara G. Baker

ISTANBUL, December 3 (Compass) -- Five weeks after Islamic extremists gunned down 15 Pakistani Christians in a Sunday morning worship service, church leaders across Pakistan admitted that their congregations remain "tense and fearful" as Christmas approaches.

"My people are a bit afraid," Bishop John Victor Mall of the Church of Pakistan told Compass by telephone from Multan. "I would not say they have lost their faith, but they have definitely lost their confidence."

Bishop Mall said many Christians were uneasy about attending traditional Advent programs this year in his diocese, which includes the Bahawalpur congregation attacked on October 28. Normally widely attended, the Christmas celebrations are often held in the evenings after dark, he noted.

The Protestant bishop said he met last week with Multan's deputy inspector general (DIG) of police, who promised stepped-up security arrangements for all the local churches' Christmas programs this year. "But the DIG cannot put many policemen everywhere," the bishop said, "so some Christians will be afraid to come."

Threats of a "Christmas bloodbath" against Christians have proliferated in Pakistan since late October, when the Al-Qaeda terrorist organization demanded the death of two Christians in retaliation for every Muslim killed in the U.S. military strikes in Afghanistan. Christians compose less than three percent of the national population.

The Bahawalpur massacre, carried out by masked gunmen two days after the terrorist threat came out in Pakistani newspapers, was the worst single massacre of Christians in Pakistan's 54-year history. The slayers had shouted Islamic slogans while mowing down their victims, declaring their attack "just the beginning" of making Afghanistan and Pakistan the "graveyard of Christians."

"It's the unpredictability of it all," another bishop from the Punjab commented. "Anytime it can happen, anywhere," agreed a Christian layman in Karachi. "Yesterday it was Bahawalpur; tomorrow it can be Karachi, Lahore, Peshawar, or anywhere."

Within a week of the Bahawalpur killings, Pakistan police authorities reported that about 120 suspects from hard-line Islamist groups had been rounded up. But so far only one man, who was accused of sending faxes on behalf of the Lashkar-e-Umar militants claiming responsibility for the massacre, has been identified by police investigators.

"We have heard that four suspects remain under arrest for possible involvement in the crime," a Lahore source reported, "but so far none have been named or charged publicly."

According to church sources, both the wife of Bahawalpur's slain minister and the new pastor just posted to replace him were told by police investigators over the weekend that an announcement of the accused culprits was pending "within two or three days."

"The authorities are always very secretive about investigations into attacks against Christians," a church leader in Lahore told Compass last week. Even if the perpetrators are known extremists, he said, "They don't want to go out of their way, to be seen to punish Muslims."

Nevertheless, Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf's initial handling of the Bahawalpur massacre "left no doubt of government sincerity" in declaring such acts of terrorism will not be tolerated, one bishop said. Police authorities promptly beefed up security around the nation's churches, he noted.

"But what about the individual Christians who are coming out of their houses every day to go to work?" asked M.L. Shahani, a Baptist layman and lawyer in the Supreme Court of Pakistan. "The president must take concrete steps toward confidence-building in the non-Muslim minorities of Pakistan. Without that, the Christian community will be left in the lurch."

Only nine days after the Bahawalpur massacre, another member of the city's Christian community was shot and killed at his job by suspected Islamist militants. Benjamin Bashir, 25, a member of St. Dominic's Catholic congregation, was mowed down by 19 bullets as he guarded the strategic installations at the Quetta airport on November 7. The Airport Security Force officer had been the sole provider for his mother and family since his father went blind, Bishop Francis said.

Two days later, another Catholic Christian was shot to death in Peshawar, capital of the North-West Frontier Province near the Afghan border. Married with two small children, Waheed Paul was last seen by his wife on the morning of November 9, as he went in the gates to his office. According to CRAA, an Afghan-run non-governmental organization that employed him as an accountant, he did not report for work that morning.

Although known as a devout Christian, Paul was not involved in any church ministry. "It seems clear that the cause for killing him was the fact that he was a Christian," a source said, although local Christians were mystified as to why he had been chosen as a target.

In Bahawalpur, the main sanctuary of St. Dominic's Catholic Church where the massacre took place was re-consecrated in a solemn November 15 mass led by Catholic Bishop of Multan Andrew Francis. Now back in use by both the local Catholic community and the small Protestant congregation, the prayer hall has been scrubbed of the bloodstains, fresh jute mats placed on the floor and shattered windows repaired. But the pockmarks of 142 bullets still deface its walls and altar.

All five of the Christians seriously wounded in the attack are "improving slowly," Bishop Francis said, and two of them are still hospitalized.

Mrs. Sarai Nemat Masih, the wife of a retired pastor, was flown in mid November to England, where she has undergone delicate surgery to remove some of the 12 bullets lodged in her stomach, arm and leg. The most elderly survivor, an 80-year-old man named Moses, is still being treated in Bahawalpur's Victoria Hospital, Bishop Mall said.

Khurram Shahzad recovered sufficiently from being shot in the lung to be released from a Lahore hospital to return home, although he is still confined to bed. The two others injured, six-year-old Elisheba and her father, Shamoun Masih, have also been allowed to leave the hospital care and return home.

Bishop Mall confirmed that the Pakistani government had fulfilled its pledge to pay compensation of one lakh rupees (over $1,600) to the families of the 15 Christians and one Muslim guard killed in the attack. "It's not so much," he said, "but they kept their promise."

"It has been a very long month here, after this very, very sad incident," Bishop Mall sighed. "And it is a tense time, this first Christmas afterwards. Please pray for us."

2001 Copyright Compass News Direct. Used with Permission.