Pakistan's Christians Told to 'Protect Themselves'

Sunday, August 11, 2002

by Barbara G. Baker

ISTANBUL, September 9 (Compass) -- In the wake of two more deadly terrorist attacks against Christian institutions in Pakistan in early August, government security officials have advised local church leaders to arm themselves for possible assaults by Muslim extremists.

“It’s their way of saying, ‘We cannot protect you. You will have to protect yourselves.’” one Christian leader told Compass last week.

In a carefully planned set of assaults, armed Islamic militants shot six people dead on August 5 at Murree Christian School for missionary children. Just four days later, another handful of extremists hurled grenades at the chapel of Taxila Christian Hospital, killing five more and wounding another 26. All the victims were Pakistani citizens.

The deadly raids were the most recent of four deliberate attacks on Christian targets in Pakistan since President Pervez Musharraf swung his support behind the U.S.-led war on terrorism after September 11, 2001. Previous grenade blasts during worship services had taken the lives of 21and left dozens more crippled in churches in Bahawalpur last October and Islamabad in March.

Concentrated in the Punjab province, Christians make up less than five percent of Pakistan’s 145 million people. Local church leaders believe their congregations have been targeted over the past year by radical Islamist movements who associate Christians with the West both politically and militarily.

After the latest Murree and Taxila attacks, the Islamabad government ordered token security protection by local police and army staff for Christian churches across the country during their regular worship services.

In Lahore, the superintendent of police told daily newspapers that due to insufficient manpower he could only delegate one, two or at the most three police guards to protect all the city’s 164 churches at their Sunday services.

“But this only went on for about two weeks,” one church leader said. “Then the security called us in and said the rest was up to us.” Each parish was urged to get gun licenses, hire and train guards, and instruct its congregation and staff on how to respond in case of attack.

Security officials also called in administrators of the hundreds of Christian schools, hospitals and other institutions run by the Christian community across the nation, explaining that it was “impossible” for the government to protect them all.

“They are almost forcing us to go and buy guns,” a clergyman commented. “Before, it was very difficult for a Christian to even get a gun license, but now every church can get up to four.” Some congregations cannot afford weapons, however, and many object in principle to arming themselves in a place dedicated to worship and Christian service.

“I still do not feel completely at ease while worshipping under the supervision of the police,” Bishop Samuel Azariah of the Church of Pakistan’s Raiwand Diocese told the “Daily Times” newspaper on August 14. “Psychologically it makes one feel like a convict,” he said.

“It doesn’t feel good at all,” agreed another clergyman. “And because our diocese is in financial straits, we are not even able to buy guns for our gatekeepers,” he told Compass. “They are very frightened.”

“The fact that we are praying to God under the shadow of guns is very disheartening for me,” one woman parishioner admitted. “I am a Pakistani, [so] I should not feel insecure within my country.”

“I am not moving about much now,” commented one bishop based in a city known for its Islamic fanaticism. “And when I do, I borrow a vehicle because everybody knows my car here.”

Inevitably, Bishop Azariah said, the situation has created a “siege” mindset within the Christian community. Some Christian institutions in more remote areas have had to resort to sandbagging their premises and hiring several more watchmen.

“Sundays are bad for us,” another clergyman sighed. “Pray for us, that our people will get their confidence back, and not be afraid to come to church.”