Pakistan: Pro-Sharia Rebels Threaten Christians

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Militants clash with army over Islamic law

ISTANBUL (Compass Direct News) -- Islamic militants threatened to bomb a Christian family for refusing to convert to Islam as fighting between militants and government troops resumed in northwestern Pakistan yesterday.

“Become Muslim – otherwise, we are going to destroy your house with bombs,” an anonymous caller told a Swat Christian family last night.

The family, who requested that their name and village be kept anonymous for security reasons, said that they stayed awake all night praying after the 10 p.m. threat. They said that a Muslim neighbor, a close friend, spent the night in their front room as a token of solidarity.

Last month the family received a similar threat; militants delivered the threat in writing to a campsite the family operates.

A tiny Christian community in North West Frontier Province has reported increasing pressure to conform to Islamic law in recent months. Since July, followers of Muslim cleric Maulana Fazlullah have worked to enforce Islamic law (sharia) in much of Swat Valley, prompting clashes with government troops this week.

A worker with the Church of Pakistan in Peshawar confirmed that Christians in Swat have been forced to accept Islamic law.

“Militants have begun to enforce Muslim customs, which is creating problems for the local community,” said Ashar Dean, assistant director of communications for the diocese.

Life has become even more difficult for Christians and other moderates in the valley since fighting broke out between government forces and extremists last week.

A brief truce on Monday and Tuesday allowed civilians to shop for food and other essentials. But according to sources in Swat, clashes resumed last night. It remains unclear whether locals again will be forced to stay indoors.

“In these conditions, sometimes people are going to lose their faith,” a member of the threatened family said. “But I am making the request [for prayer] that God give us our faith.”

Islamists beheaded two policemen and seven civilians Saturday (October 27), warning that violence would continue until Islamic rule was established in Swat, the Daily Times reported.

Extremists loyal to Fazlullah carried out 53 bombings between July and October, Dawn newspaper said in an October 9 article. In addition to killing government officials, the blasts targeted anything deemed “un-Islamic,” including CD shops, girls schools and tailors making Western clothes.

In areas wrested from government control, Fazlullah’s followers established sharia courts to try violators of Islamic law.

According to Dean, the valley’s Christian minority of approximately 70 families has been especially hard hit by the enforcement of sharia.

“Christians in Swat are very vulnerable because they don’t live together in a group,” Dean said. “They are individually living among the majority community in various villages.”

Mainly lower class street sweepers, the valley’s Christians have begun donning Muslim attire in order to blend in, Dean said.

Two boys from Swat studying in Peshawar had found their family’s lives drastically changed when they returned home for a holiday, according to Dean.

“They were told by their father to wear white colored hats that [Muslims] wear when they go to the mosque to say their prayers,” Dean said. He also said that Christian men were forced to grow out their beards.

Militants have forbidden barbers to offer shaves.

A Christian resident said that she and her daughter can now only leave home wearing a burqa. The Islamic attire leaves only a woman’s eyes and hands exposed.

“You can’t watch TV, and you can’t keep CDs in your house,” the woman said.

Catholic-run Sangota Public High School, an all-female institution, temporarily closed its doors last month after it received a threatening letter from alleged Islamists.

The note claimed that nuns were involving the young women in adultery and working to convert Muslim students to Christianity. It demanded that all female students and teachers don the burqa.

In response to the extremist takeover, Pakistan moved several thousand troops into Swat valley last week, precipitating four days of fighting that ended in a temporary ceasefire on Monday (October 29).

But Fazlullah’s Islamists appear reluctant to back down from enforcing sharia.

“The ceasefire was reached to facilitate wounded persons’ treatment,” a spokesperson announced on the Muslim cleric’s illegal radio station. “Later on we will hold negotiations with the government on establishing sharia in the region,” the Daily Times quoted him as saying.

The fighting forced Sangota Public High School to again close its doors last Thursday (October 25), Father Anwar Batras Gill told Compass from Peshawar.

The Catholic priest said that three nuns running the school were doing well but that their students could no longer attend because of the violence.

Islamists increased efforts to establish Islamic rule in Swat following a government crackdown on militants at Lal Masjid mosque in Islamabad in July. The takeover of the mosque sparked violent reactions from Islamists throughout the country.

Copyright © 2007 Compass Direct