Pro-Taliban Militant Group Claims Responsibility
by Barbara G. Baker
ISTANBUL, November 5 (Compass) -- Security was at an all-time high yesterday as solemn memorial services were held in every Christian church in Pakistan, mourning the 16 victims massacred by Muslim extremists during a Sunday morning worship service last week.
A Protestant pastor, 14 members of his congregation and a Muslim policeman were gunned down in the October 28 attack, now believed to have been carried out by five masked suspects. Five Christians who sustained serious injuries remain in the hospital, one in critical condition.
In Bahawalpur, where the fatal attack occurred, a joint Protestant and Catholic service was held Sunday on the compound of St. Dominic's Catholic Church. However, the church's main sanctuary remained closed. According to the local priest, Fr. Rocus Patrus, the church will be thoroughly washed and then re-consecrated before opening for use again.
"I have just returned from Bahawalpur," Catholic Bishop of Multan Andrew Francis told Compass today, "and there are more police in the compound of the church than there are trees! But now, of course, it's too late." It was the worst massacre of Christians in the history of Pakistan.
When Governor Gen. Khalid Maqbool of the Punjab province arrived in Bahawalpur the afternoon of the mass funeral, he expressed annoyance that "the culprits did their crime without any hindrance, at any part of the execution of their bloody plan."
The newly appointed governor reportedly ordered law enforcement agencies to arrest the perpetrators within one week. "The failure will be assumed as their incompetency," Maqbool said.
According to a report in today's "Dawn" newspaper, three of the four constables deployed to guard St. Dominic's Church had "gone for breakfast" at the time of the attack. The paper said the three have been suspended for negligence of duty.
An unknown group calling itself "Lashkar-e-Umar" (Army of Umar) claimed responsibility for the carnage, calling it revenge for "the American crusade" in Afghanistan. According to an October 30 "Dawn" report, the militants' pro-Taliban rhetoric was included in a fax sent to a local Urdu-language newspaper.
Two days before the Bahawalpur attack, the Urdu daily "Lashkar" newspaper printed a message from Al-Qaeda representative Suleyman Abu al-Faid, threatening a "Christmas bloodbath" if the United States continued to bomb Afghanistan during Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting beginning in mid November.
"If the attacks are not stopped during our holy month of Ramadan, then we will devastate all the infidels' Christmas and Happy New Year celebrations throughout the world," the October 26 article said, quoting al-Faid. "If these people do not have any consideration for our holy month, then neither will we consider their holy festivals," the spokesman said.
"Whenever anything takes place on planet earth which concerns Muslims," Bishop Francis commented, "the Christian community here gets the backlash."
More than 100 suspects in the Bahawalpur killings have been detained by Pakistan police authorities in the past week, according to Associated Press (AP) reports. Those detained were said to include activists of at least three hardline Islamic militant groups, including Jaish-e Mohammed, which is headquartered in Bahawalpur.
The first suspect to be identified, Shafiq ur-Rehman, is a member of the extremist Sipah-e-Sabaha, a group long accused of inciting false blasphemy cases against Christians, Ahmadis and other non-Muslim minorities. A police spokesman told AP that ur-Rehman was believed to have sent faxes to local news media on behalf of the Lashkar-e-Umar.
According to Bishop of Multan John Victor Mall of the Church of Pakistan, one woman who was face-to-face with the gunmen during the attack received a telephoned threat the day after the funeral.
Bishop Mall said that after 70-year-old Nasim Jalal helped police investigators with sketches of the suspects, she was warned in a telephone call to "get ready for death." Jalal told AP that the caller had also threatened to kill all her children.
After visiting all five of the hospitalized survivors, Bishop Mall told Compass that most of them were improving slowly. He was most concerned about the wife of a retired pastor, Mrs. Sarai Nemat Masih, who had been shot 12 times.
"She is very injured, with six bullets in her stomach, three in one leg, and three in her arm," Bishop Mall said. "So she is not very stable yet." Initially under the treatment of her own son, a doctor at the local Victoria Hospital, Mrs. Masih is scheduled to be transferred tomorrow to the intensive care unit of Sheikh Zaid Hospital in Lahore.
Another wounded Christian, an 80-year-old man named Moses, told the bishop he was quite discouraged with his recovery progress. "When we went there, he started crying," the bishop said, "so we just gave him encouragement."
The other two patients at Victoria Hospital from the shooting are a six-year-old girl, Elishaba, and her father, Shamoun Masih. Bishop Mall said the girl's legs were both wounded, one fractured by four bullets. Her father's injured arm required surgery. But both were recovering rapidly, he said.
The bishop said that little Elishaba kept declaring to all her visitors, "Thank God, Jesus saved us!" When someone asked her if she would go back to church again, she replied firmly, "Yes, I will. We will definitely go back to church. Thank God that Jesus saved us!"
A fifth Christian critically injured from a bullet in his lungs was sent by plane to Lahore for specialized treatment. Khurrum Shahzad, in his early 20s, remains under intensive care at Sheikh Zaid Hospital. "He is a young, very healthy chap," the bishop said, "and he is improving." According to Shahzad's father, his son was shot repeatedly after he tried to grab the gun of one of the assailants.
Pakistan's Christian citizens, who are forbidden by law to own guns, are "a very easy target, because we don't believe in violence," commented Bishop Francis. "And they know that we are unarmed. It was a definitely orchestrated act of terrorism."
2001 Copyright Compass News Direct. Used with permission.