Pakistan: Freed Christian Describes Kidnapping Ordeal

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

 Told to convert or die, doctor’s abduction highlights area’s Islamic extremism.

ISTANBUL (Compass Direct News) -- A Christian doctor described receiving various death threats while kidnapped recently by Islamic extremists in an area of Pakistan reeling from extremist violence.

Militants in parts of the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) have forced Christians and moderate Muslims to don Islamist garb, have bombed CD shops for perceived decadence and, in the case of Dr. Reginald Zahiruddin, have attempted forced conversion to Islam.

The extremists released Dr. Zahiruddin on January 2, after kidnapping the Christian 25 days prior and demanding he renounce his faith at gunpoint. Five armed men cut off Dr. Zahiruddin and his driver as they were traveling south from the city of Bannu on December 8, the doctor said in a written account of his kidnapping.

The medical superintendent of Pennell Memorial Christian Hospital in Bannu was on a weekly visit to the city of Dera Ismail Khan, 100 kilometers south (62 miles), to treat 50 poor patients.

“I have worked in this area for about 25 years, and I used to think that because they all know me nothing will happen to me,” the doctor told Compass by telephone from Bannu. His work had often taken him into Waziristan, an area along the Afghan border controlled by pro-Taliban groups.

The Christian’s captors blindfolded him and forced him and his driver into the back of his van, driving three hours before transferring them to the trunk of a station wagon for another hour’s drive. The kidnappers threatened to blow up the van with a suicide jacket and hand grenades if he made any noise.

Upon reaching their destination, Dr. Zahiruddin and his driver were chained and taken to a dark, stuffy room.

“We were provided with very thin bedding which hardly kept [out] the cold, and the metallic chains tied to our ankles never let [our] feet get warm,” the doctor wrote. There the Christians were held for 25 days, freed only twice a day for five minutes to relieve themselves and wash.

During the first week of captivity, a Muslim cleric would come to the room four times a day to talk about Islam and invite the Christian doctor to convert. He would play religious cassettes that taught Islam and called for violent jihad, holy war.

“He would threaten me, saying, ‘We have a jail here and we can do anything to you if you don’t accept Islam,’” Dr. Zahiruddin said. “It was all verbal, not physical.”

On December 15, the doctor and his driver were each blindfolded and taken separately to another room.

“I could hear the whispers of several men and the sound of a video camera,” the doctor said. His captors wanted him to remove his shirt and pants and don shalwar-kameez, traditional Pakistani garb, but he said that he refused.

Upon removing the blindfold, Dr. Zahiruddin said he found himself facing a group of men pointing Kalashnikov guns at him, while another man with a long dagger sat behind him. The men demanded to know why he would not convert to Islam and threatened to slit his throat if he did not.

Later, the men told Dr. Zahiruddin that the main reason for his kidnapping was to force him to convert to Islam.

“I was bold enough to refuse, and I even told them that God has the authority of taking my life as he has given it to me,” the doctor said.

The group’s religious leader eventually ordered his men to stop questioning Dr. Zahiruddin after the Christian asked them if the Quran encouraged non-Muslims to accept the faith through force and threats.

The captors eventually revealed that their second reason for kidnapping the Christian was to get a ransom of 20 million rupees (US$319,000) to buy weapons.

The doctor assured his kidnappers that because he worked for a charitable organization and was not rich, no one would pay that much for him. Dr. Zahiruddin’s captors eventually changed their ransom demands to 1 million rupees US$15,950) and threatened to kill him if their demand were refused.

Surprise Release

But on December 29, the captors entered his room unarmed, apologized for holding him against his will, and requested that Dr. Zahiruddin sign a statement saying that he had not been tortured. The militants explained that the Majlis-e-Shoura, a 10- member leadership council for Islamic militants in Waziristan, had demanded his release.

Four days later, the captors blindfolded Dr. Zahiruddin and his driver and drove them back to Bannu.

After his release, he learned that friends had appealed to militants in the tribal areas for his rescue, citing the doctor’s longstanding humanitarian work as reason for his release. Dr. Zahiruddin said that members of Waziristan’s Majlis-e-Shoura had been notified of his kidnapping on December 10 and had discovered his location by December 25.

Not wanting to create a tense hostage situation that could result in the death of the two Christians, the Islamic leadership council had attempted some form of negotiations for the two men’s release.

“They were afraid that the people who kidnapped us might harm us, or maybe kill us and bury us there,” Dr. Zahiruddin said. “They used some type of tactic, their own traditional connections, to get us. We don’t know who did it.”

Dr. Zahiruddin said that his time in captivity gave him a chance to pray and see God’s provision in a new way. He said that he was surprised that he and his driver did not become sick or get any form of rash despite having worn the same clothes for 25 days.

New Attacks

Dr. Zahiruddin said that his kidnapping was especially hard on his wife and three sons.

Ages 23, 22 and 15, the doctor’s sons posted Internet appeals on their father’s behalf while he was missing. His wife, a dentist, took over running the Bannu hospital in her husband’s absence while working to raise awareness and prayer for him.

The doctor said that once, while chained in the dark room, he had seen what he described as a “vision” of a circle of light containing unfamiliar faces. He said that he felt that God was showing him all of the people around the world who were praying for his safety during his captivity.

Dr. Zahiruddin said that his youngest son had suffered the most from his capture and now refused to let his father out of his sight, quitting his studies in southern Pakistan to be with his parents in Bannu.

Christians in the NWFP and tribal areas have faced new attacks in 2008. On January 17 Sajid Williams, an aid worker with development organization Shelter Now International, was shot to death while leaving work in Peshawar.

In early January, five Christians were kidnapped and released three days later in south Waziristan, where pro-Taliban groups have taken control. According to Union of Catholic Asia News, the group was “mistakenly tortured for being alcohol dealers but later released after the abductors found that they were Christian sweepers.”

As Pakistanis headed to the polls today for parliamentary elections, a proposal to establish Islamic courts in the NWFP remained pending before President Pervez Musharraf.

The bill is seen as a bid to appease Muslim insurgents fighting to bring the area under sharia, Islamic law. Critics have challenged the plan for seemingly rewarding pro-Taliban elements for their armed revolt, which began in Swat last July.

Copyright © 2008 Compass Direct