Pakistan: Christians on Front Lines of Democracy Struggle

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Three Christians killed in Swat valley crossfire.

ISTANBUL (Compass Direct News) -- Pakistani Christians have played a prominent role in the struggle against harsh emergency laws established by the country’s president this month. And many of have paid the price.

Pakistan’s Catholic Bishop’s Conference (PCBC) last week demanded an end to security measures used to arrest lawyers, journalists and rights activists, including many Christians.

President Pervez Musharraf has claimed that growing violent extremism and an unruly judiciary necessitated the harsh laws in place since November 3.

Many Pakistanis, including Christians, have indeed suffered from the growth of radical Islam in recent weeks. The deaths of three Christians in the northern valley of Swat, where fanatics have enforced radical Islamic law since July, sent fear through the area’s tiny Christian community.

But Musharraf’s opponents argue that he had arrested more than 5,000 activists under emergency law (many of them now released) in order to sideline political opposition.

“People detained after the imposition of emergency [rule] must be released immediately and unconditionally,” the PCBC stated on Friday (November 23).

“It is a very positive thing that Christians were part and parcel of this movement for democracy,” said Peter Jacob of the Catholic Church’s National Commission for Justice and Peace (NCJP).

Irfan Barkat of the NCJP and Nadeem Anthony, a Christian working with United Nations Special Rapporteur Asma Jahangir, were among 54 prominent human rights workers arrested for “illegal assembly” on November 4. The group had met at the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan’s offices to discuss emergency rule, instituted the previous day.

“The charges were eventually dropped,” said Anthony. “It was a drama.”

Immediately following the declaration of emergency rule, police raided the Faisalabad home of Christian lawyer Khalil Tahir, known for defending blasphemy suspects.

“I am in hiding because they are raiding my home,” the lawyer told Compass, speaking by telephone while at a protest in front of the Faisalabad press club last week.

He said that his wife and children had been home when police came on November 6, but that they had left to avoid raids the following three days.

Police also arrested several dozen Christian activists from the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance who staged a protest against the emergency rule in Lahore on November 13.

Impact of Islamic Insurgency

Three Christians were killed on November 16 by government-extremist crossfire in Pakistan’s northern Swat valley, where today locals reported gains against the militants.

Identified only by their first names, Waheed, Gulzar and Raja were returning from work as office and home cleaners in Kabler when they were shot on the road to Mingora.

Further details of their deaths remained unknown to Christians in the area. The funerals of the three men, who had moved to the area from Punjab with their young families only the previous year, were held on November 18.

Local Christians said that no priest or pastor was able to attend the funeral because roads into the area were blocked. No clergy currently reside in the valley to serve the tiny Christian community of approximately 70 families.

“Here we just have a small graveyard, not a proper one,” one Christian told Compass. “It’s under a bridge.”

Each of the three Christians left behind widows, and respectively they left three, five and six young children, a Christian from the area said.

“They all have small children, and the ladies are uneducated and have no work,” the source said. “We went to buy them some food, but we need special prayer for them.”

Known for its mountains and lakes, Swat valley has ceased to attract tourists since radical Muslim leader Maulana Fazlullah declared war on the government in July. His followers have bombed CD shops, closed down girls’ schools, forced women to fully cover themselves in public and threatened local Christians with reprisals if they do not convert to Islam.

In an attempt to establish an Islamic state, the cleric’s followers drove out a number of the valley’s elected officials, prompting the army to move troops into the area last month.

Events in Swat have alarmed moderates in Pakistan because it is the first major Islamic insurgency in what is known as a settled area, little more than 100 miles from Islamabad.

“But this is a sham sort of excuse for the emergency [rule],” said Jacob of the NCJP. “There are no new powers in the emergency [law] which the army needed and did not have before.”

On Friday (November 23) a new supreme court stacked with the president’s supporters validated Musharraf’s controversial September reelection.

Opponents had challenged the general’s right to retain his position as military chief while being president. Though the dual role is prohibited by Pakistan’s constitution, Musharraf has held both posts since staging a coup in 1999.

Following through on promises he first made in 2003, Musharraf resigned from his position as head of the military today.

Jacob praised the move, saying that it was an important step towards democracy.

Christians make up less than 2 percent of Pakistan’s 165 million citizens.

Copyright © 2007 Compass Direct