Pakistan Militants Force Christians To Convert To Islam And Shut Churches

Monday, May 14, 2007

By BosNewsLife News Center

ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN (BosNewsLife) -- Christians in northwest Pakistan on Sunday, May 13, worshiped amid heightened tensions after they received threatening letters warning them to shut their churches and convert to Islam within the next few days as anti-Christian violence spreads across Pakistan, officials confirmed to BosNewsLife.

Copies of handwritten letter with a May 17 ultimatum were reportedly delivered to two churches and several Christians' homes in Charsadda, a northwestern Pakistan town where the federal interior minister last month escaped a homicide attack that apparently killed 28 people.

"The ultimatum has further aggravated the sense of insecurity and fear among the Christians of Charsada," of Taliban style social structures imposed by militants, said Shahbaz Bhatti, the chairman of All Pakistan Minorities Alliance (APMA), a major advocacy group here. Christians are "spending their day and night in fear and many are thinking to vacate the area due to threats and possible attacks," Bhatti told BosNewsLife.

Christians reportedly alerted local police to the letters and security was stepped up at churches, but it remained unclear whether this would prevent further violence.


However in published remarks, Christians of Charsadda said that although they fear for their lives "and are mindful that the militants can kill" they "trust God for protection and can not succumb to the demands of the Islamic militants."

Other recent examples of Islamic extremism are bombings of music stores -- including two reported blasts in Charsadda last week -- threats to barbers not to shave customers' beards and pressure for the closure of schools for girls.

Iqbal Khan, another local police official, told reporters that a small bomb tied to a motorcycle exploded in Charsadda late Wednesday, damaging several CD shops. He said authorities had yet to make any arrests over the bombings.

The Associated Press news agency quoted Asif Daudzai, minister for information in North West Frontier Province (NWFP), which includes Charsadda, as saying that authorities would uphold minorities' freedom of religion. "No one will be allowed to do it (force them to convert). Christians and other minorities are free to go to churches and temples and live according to their religion," Daudzai added.


APMA investigators said however that the latest threats come at a time when "many Christians" have been incarcerated and "killed" in the region and across Pakistan. In addition believers often become target due to what AMPA and other groups describes as "the misuse of blasphemy laws" by what they call "extremist elements".

There have been several attacks on churches, Christian schools and other institutions
in recent years. Analysts say the attacks increased since Pakistan became a key ally of Washington in its campaign against terror following the September 11, 2001, suicide hijackings on the United States and the invasion of Afghanistan.

In one of the more published incidents in 2002, five people were killed, two of them Americans, when suspected Islamic militants set off grenades at a church in Islamabad's heavily guarded diplomatic enclave.

Bhatti said that despite official comments, he fears the government is "unable to control" the rising "violent activities of militant organizations in Pakistan or provide protection" to its citizens.


Already embattled President President Pervez Musharraf fights for his own political survival, appealing for calm after 34 people died in the country's worst political violence in years this weekend. Supporters of President Pervez Musharraf fought street battles with those of top judge Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, suspended by the president, who seeks a new term.

"Over the past years, the influence of religious extremist groups has increased in NWFP and other parts of Pakistan," said Bhatti. "Islamic militants are committing violence in the name of religion to impose their own radical and Taliban style concept of Islam by force," he claimed.

He said militants have been "taking law into their own hands, blowing themselves as suicidal bombers and policing society." Bhatti told BosNewsLife that APMA officials traveled to Charsadda to support Christians and said his group has urged believers in a statement "to pray for the government of Pakistan that God may provide them [with] wisdom and courage to make sincere efforts to control the situation and violence."

Christians and other minorities make up about 3 percent of Pakistan's overwhelmingly Muslim population of some 160 million, and about 500 Christians coexist peacefully with Muslims in Charsadda, according to estimates. (With BosNewsLife Chief International Correspondent Stefan J. Bos and reporting from Pakistan).

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