Pakistan: Religious Minorities Told to Convert or Die

Friday, August 17, 2007

Christians remain fearful after deadline passes for converting to Islam.

ISTANBUL, August 16 (Compass Direct News) -- Christians and Hindus in northern Pakistan have received dozens of letters threatening them with death if they refuse to become Muslims, church sources and a police official said yesterday.

Police continued to provide security around churches and temples this week, even as Christians received new deadlines for converting to Islam.

Though the original August 10 deadline for conversion has passed, Peshawar’s minorities continue to live in fear, canceling church activities and skipping services, a Catholic priest said.

“Embrace Islam and become Muslims … otherwise, after next Friday, August 10, your colony will be ruined,” read more than a dozen identical letters collected by the Church of Pakistan (COP) in Peshawar, 150 kilometers (93 miles) west of Islamabad.

A spokesman for COP, Pakistan’s largest Protestant body, said that on August 7 some of the threatening letters had been thrown into the courtyards of Christian and Hindu homes in Peshawar’s Kohati, Interior City and Cantonment districts. Different letters were mailed to Peshawar’s Catholic and Protestant churches.

“All in all, we were able to collect only 15 of the letters from the community,” said Ashar Dean, assistant director of communications for COP’s Peshawar diocese.

Explaining that they were delivered to neighborhoods heavily populated by minority families living in small houses around a common courtyard, Dean said that the letters probably reached more than 100 Christians and Hindus.

A separate letter mailed to COP diocesan priest Joseph John threatened suicide attacks against churches.

“Our mosques and children are being martyred at American orders,” read the letter. “Therefore the churches will also be wiped out from the face of the earth.”

Christian leaders immediately informed local police about the threats, prompting a meeting with City Police Chief Abdul Majeed Marwat on August 10.

“The security in their areas has been beefed up around churches and other places of worship,” Marwat told Compass yesterday, reiterating promises made to minority leaders last week.

A Christian politician also brought the letter to the national government’s attention on Friday (August 10), English-language daily Dawn reported. Pervaiz Masih, a member of the National Assembly of Pakistan, read a copy of the threat letter to the assembly and called on the government to take note of insecurity it had created among Peshawar’s Christians.

But Christians remain uncertain how seriously authorities have taken the threat.

“The speaker [of the house] took the matter very lightly and asked [Pervaiz Masih] to remind him about it in the presence of the interior minister,” Dawn reported on August 11.

While some Christian sources told Compass that Peshawar police had done a good job providing security, others were hesitant to speak openly on the telephone for fear that their criticism would draw police anger.

“It’s just a hoax, I presume,” said Police Chief Marwat, explaining that a similar incident in May had turned out to be a teenage prank.

More than 50 Christians fled the village of Charsadda this spring when a local Christian politician received a letter threatening death if the community did not embrace Islam. Two young students from an Islamic school eventually confessed to the deed and were forgiven in a June 4 meeting between Muslim religious leaders, government officials and COP Bishop Mano Rumalshah.

At least five families who fled Charsadda after the original threat have not yet returned, Dean said.

When asked why Christians did not pursue a court case against the Muslim youths, Dean said that their faith placed emphasis on reconciliation and that a court case could have backfired.

“If we had been harsh, things would have escalated and gone against our interests,” said Dean.

The cryptic comment reflects years of violent (though often isolated) incidents against Christians in Pakistan.

In November 2005, a mob of several thousand Muslims destroyed four churches, a convent and Christian schools in the Punjabi town of Sangla Hill after a Muslim accused a Christian of committing blasphemy. No one was held responsible for the attacks.

“We have experience of our [Christian neighborhoods] being attacked by extremists, so we took this very seriously,” Dean commented.

Peshawar Catholic priest Yousaf Amanat speculated that references to the United States in the letters could reflect anger over recent anti-Islamic comments by U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.). The Republican presidential hopeful said on July 31 that the best way to deter a nuclear terrorist attack on the United States was to threaten to bomb Mecca and Medina in retaliation.

“It was written that we are friends of the American people,” said Amanat, explaining that many Pakistani Muslims automatically link Pakistani Christians to the West because of their religion.

New Threat

Amanat, of St. Michael’s parish, said that he received a letter by mail telling him to convert to Islam by Tuesday (August 14).

“I was away from the parish, and when I came on Monday evening the post was on my desk,” Amanat said. “It was written that if we don’t become Muslim we will be killed.”

Ongoing threats have caused many Peshawar Christians to avoid church and other public gatherings.

A human rights activist from the region told Compass that Catholic Church attendance went down 40 percent on the Sunday after the threat. Amanat confirmed the detail, saying that he was forced to cancel several church activities planned for the week.

“With this type of threat, there is no kind of security that can stop the suicide attacks,” said Dean.

Hindus constitute 2 percent and Christians 1.5 percent of Pakistan’s population, according to the U.S. State Department’s latest report on report on religious freedom.

Copyright © 2007 Compass Direct