Three Pakistani Christians Lose Eyesight in Christmas Assault

Tuesday, January 7, 2003

Urdu Press Tags Victims Themselves as 'Culprits' in the Attack
by Barbara G. Baker

ISTANBUL, January 7 (Compass) - At least three of the wounded survivors of a deadly Christmas night attack against a village church in Pakistan have sustained permanent eye damage, confirmed doctors from Lahore who operated on two of them.

Afzal Masih and his brother Aslam Pervaiz Masih both underwent delicate eye surgery yesterday in Lahore at the General and Mayo Hospitals, respectively. Eye specialists remain uncertain whether Afzal will be blinded in just one or possibly both of his eyes. Both men have lost the use of at least one eye from splintered glass fragments driven into their faces by the grenade blast.

But today, "Pakistan" and other Urdu-language newspapers named the two brothers among three Christian "culprits" identified by the police as probable suspects. A third, Boota Masih, is the father of two daughters still hospitalized with injuries from the December 25 attack.

"They have lost their eyes in the attack, and the other's daughters were injured in it, and the [police and press] are accusing THEM?" asked a shocked Christian in Lahore.

"This is their normal tactic, especially in the Urdu papers," sighed a churchman in Gujranwala. "They want to put on pressure [on the Christian community], so they will withdraw the charges against the maulvi who is accused."

Significantly, Aslam Pervaiz Masih himself filed the First Information Report with the police against the Muslim leader accused of inciting the attack, just three hours after he was injured.

Another patient still under treatment in the neurology ward of General Hospital, teenager Shakila Masih, also has serious damage to her eyes as well as major head injuries. After a local newspaper announced on December 28 that Shakila had died from her wounds to become the fourth victim, the story was picked up and repeated by Reuters news agency. Alarmed, the girl's relatives rushed to her bedside in Lahore to learn that the report was incorrect.

Two more women, Nasreen Masih and Asia Masih, are also being treated at Mayo Hospital for less serious eye injuries from the attack. Meanwhile, Chianwali's other wounded Christians recovering in a Gujranwala hospital are reportedly resisting medical discharge, saying they are afraid to go back to their village. So far, none of their relatives have returned either.

"Nobody is threatening them, but they are very much afraid," said a visitor who talked with them on January 3. "They were saying that their children are not going to school, and they are afraid to go to the market to buy even their daily needs."

Three young girls died and another 13 children and their parents were wounded in the December 25 attack, when two men hurled grenades into a children's Christmas program at a small Presbyterian chapel in remote Chianwali village, 40 miles northwest of Lahore.

Contrary to statements widely reported in the Pakistani and international media, the attackers were not wrapped in women's burqas to conceal themselves, village eyewitnesses later confirmed. According to one Compass source who visited the attack scene the following day, several bystanders had seen the faces of the two young men who threw grenades in the church and then fled. "But no one is willing to give evidence," the source said, "as they are afraid of reprisals from the police."

"Their faces were clear," agreed a member of the Center for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS) investigative team. "They were not wearing burqas." Villagers identified the suspects as Naeem and Ijaz, two young Muslims in the area who had both been involved in "jihad" campaigns in Kashmir.

Meanwhile, the fiery Islamist cleric arrested just hours after the attack on accusations of instigating it remains in the custody of the Satrah police. Authorities also claim to have arrested other suspects related to Maulvi Mohammed Afzal, including his sons and close associates.

An open supporter of the militant Jaish-e-Mohammed (Army of Mohammed) group now outlawed in Pakistan, Afzal faces charges of urging his congregation to kill Christians in the weeks just preceding the December 25 attack.

"The maulvi had been abusing Christians and inciting the people for the past three weeks," local church leaders confirmed. "We had reported these threats to the police and named the people we suspected, but the police had taken no action."

Since his arrest, local police investigators told the Pakistani press they had been unable to find "solid proof" that Afzal had any direct involvement in the Chianwali attack. Pakistan's coalition of Islamist political parties, the Muttahida Majlis-I-Amal (MMA), has insisted that Afzal is innocent, calling for his immediate release. Declaring that the Pakistani government should not bow to international pressure over this "local issue," the MMA described Afzal as "a soldier of Islam [who] has always preached for Islam."

According to a newspaper report on January 1, the MMA placed blame for the attack on the local church, urging the government "to also interrogate Christian leaders who arranged a service in Chianwali without informing the authorities."