Pakistani Pastor Escapes Islamist Captors

Wednesday, May 19, 2004

Badly tortured cleric forced into hiding.

by Barbara G. Baker

ISTANBUL, May 19 (Compass) -- A Protestant pastor kidnapped last Sunday morning escaped from his Islamist abductors overnight Monday, some 40 hours after he had disappeared on his way to church services in Quetta, capital of Pakistan’s Baluchistan province.

Pastor Wilson Fazal, 41, managed to jump out of the vehicle in which his kidnappers were driving him to Peshawar late on the night of May 17.

“He himself said he could not believe he could escape, that he got free from those people,” a church source who met Fazal today told Compass. “It was a very big miracle.”

According to the Pakistan Gospel Assemblies pastor, his captors were driving him from Islamabad to Peshawar at high speed in a Pajero jeep when a mobile police patrol began following them.

Panicking, the kidnappers drove off the road to escape the patrol, braking enough to give Fazal a chance to jump from the vehicle and run for his life. Despite his injuries and emotional state, he escaped in the darkness, eventually finding bus transport back to Islamabad.

Fazal re-appeared early yesterday morning at the official Islamabad lodgings of a minority member of Pakistan’s National Assembly from Quetta, Asiya Nasir. In brief interviews with Pakistan dailies, Nasir confirmed from Quetta that she had spoken by telephone yesterday morning with Fazal and that he was now safe, but declined to comment further.

However, the Quetta parliamentarian told the U.N.’s Integrated Regional Information Network (IRIN) that the pastor “kept on crying” during his call and was “so scared that he can’t even talk.” Although Nasir said she did not yet know the full details, she told IRIN that Fazal had somehow “managed to escape near Peshawar, and caught a bus to Islamabad.”

According to a church source who met Fazal today, the pastor was badly harassed and mistreated. “He is not in a condition to give a detailed statement yet,” the source said.

Fazal was severely beaten by his captors, who also subjected him to electric shocks, stabbed him through the tongue, shaved off his hair and mustache and taunted him with savage death threats if he refused to convert to Islam.

The pastor also said he was shown photographs and diagrams and questioned in detail about Christian leaders and institutions in Quetta, clearly indicating his captors had organized plans to move against the city’s Christian community.

Reportedly, police authorities from Quetta have insisted that Fazal return for questioning in their investigation of the case. One police official even accused local church leaders of orchestrating the kidnapping scenario, describing Fazal’s “mysterious disappearance” as a deliberate “drama.”

However, those providing a safe haven for the pastor have declared that returning to Quetta would be “a huge security risk” for both Fazal and his family.

Fazal’s wife Nasreen and six sons left Quetta yesterday to be reunited with Fazal at a protected safehouse in an undisclosed location. The family’s security as well as contact with the media has been delegated to representatives of local human rights groups.

According to an Interior Ministry spokesman quoted in today’s Dawn newspaper, Fazal was given medical treatment yesterday for his injuries and provided with the police protection he requested. The unnamed official claimed it was “premature” to state whether any “religious elements” were involved in the pastor’s abduction.

Fazal was one of several local church leaders in Quetta to receive a series of hand-lettered threat letters last week from an unknown Islamist group calling itself “Maham-e-Jihad” (Frontier of the Holy War). Other Pentecostal pastors, the chairman of the Bethel Memorial Methodist Church and directors of various Christian institutions in Quetta also received threat letters.

The letters urged Fazal and other Christian leaders to “convert to Islam or face unspecified consequences,” Reuters news agency reported. The letters also told them “to stop teaching Muslim students.” Those who failed to heed the warning would be subjected to “acts of terrorism or suicide attacks,” the letters said.

Six of Quetta’s Christian leaders who had received these direct threats went into hiding the day after Fazal disappeared, in order to avoid capture themselves. Yesterday, all were confirmed to be safe and in contact with their families.

After Fazal’s disappearance was reported Sunday night, Christian churches throughout Quetta held continuous prayer meetings all day Monday for his safe recovery.

Less than 70,000 of Pakistan’s estimated eight million Christians live in Baluchistan, a sparsely populated province along the country’s southwestern border with Afghanistan.

Since President Pervez Musharraf joined the U.S. war on terrorism in the fall of 2001, fanatic Muslim extremists have killed 42 people and injured another 114 in eight terrorist attacks against Christian churches and institutions in Pakistan.