PAKISTAN-KYRGYZSTAN: Christians fear attacks

ISLAMABAD, 19 September (IRIN) - Members of Pakistan's Christian minority
fear they may be attacked by Muslims as attitudes harden in the runup to
anticipated US military action against Afghanistan. "The mulvi (cleric) at a
mosque last Friday said that if one Muslim is killed in Afghanistan, two
Christians will be killed in Pakistan. This is the kind of intimidation that
is going on," Father Simon Sarfaraz of St Fatima's church in Islamabad told
IRIN on Wednesday.

"These fanatic Muslims are considering this a war between Christians and
Muslims," Sarfaraz added. "It is a very scary situation at the moment.
People are afraid, wondering what will happen."

Pakistani Christians comprise an estimated three million out of a total
population of 140 million. Since Saudi dissident Osama bin Laden was named
the prime suspect for carrying out the deadly attacks on the World Trade
Centre and the Pentagon on 11 September the minority community has been
worried.

Moreover, since Pakistan's leader, General Pervez Musharraf, has pledged to
cooperate fully with the US in its fight against terrorism, pro-Taliban
demonstrations have been increasing in Pakistan. Musharraf was due to
address the nation on Wednesday.

Sarfaraz said he knew of no attacks on any Christians up to now, but was
deeply concerned over what could happen. A countrywide strike has been
called for Friday by religious parties, which are also planning more
demonstrations across the country following Friday prayers, including two
rallies in Islamabad's twin city, Rawalpindi.

Pakistan's Christian community has been targeted by hardline Muslims in the
past. Several Christians have been killed and a considerable number jailed
after being found guilty of blasphemy in the past decade. In February 1997,
Christians in Shantinagar in the eastern province of Punjab were subjected
to violent attacks when mobs engaged in looting and desecrated churches,
leaving some 20,000 Christians homeless.

Following reprisals on Muslims in the US, Sarfaraz said he also feared
attacks on churches in Pakistan. The priests from St Fatima's were to meet
their bishop later in the day to try to devise a strategy to deal with the
crisis, but they expressed pessimism. "In the past nobody came to help us,"
he said. "Muslims think because we are Christians we are associated with the
West and Americans."

Other Pakistani Christians interviewed by IRIN expressed similar sentiments.
A woman who works in a foreign household and has to leave her five children
alone every day said events had made her very nervous, and that she had told
her children not to answer the door to strangers.

"This is not a fight between Christians and Muslims. This is only for
Osama," said Peter Fitahchen, another Christian working in Islamabad. "But
some people do not understand this. They think that Christians make a
problem, and that this is a Muslim versus Christian fight, but I hope they
will not think this."

"There's a nervousness," said Sister Adelheid, a German working at the
Rawalpindi Leprosy Hospital, which has contacts with the Christian
community. "A mob could come and who knows...", she said. "We hear the
mosques around us who are stirring up the people."

Elsewhere in the region there are similar concerns. Russians in Kyrgyzstan -
a dwindling community - are particularly sensitive to the risks of an armed
conflict in the region if the US strikes Afghanistan.

In 1991, when Kyrgyzstan became independent, Russians accounted for 20
percent of the population. Today, half of them have left the country,
causing a major brain drain, as they often represented a qualified labour
force. The term Russian is used generically to include all people of Slav
origin - Russians, Ukrainians, Belorussians.

However, Islamic leaders have given assurances that there would be no such
reprisals in Bishkek. Abdushakur Narmatov, head of the Islamic Institute of
Bishkek, which  trains the future mullahs of Kyrgyzstan, told IRIN:
"Kyrgyzstan is 80 percent Muslim, but we have always lived in peace with our
Christian brothers. Kyrgyz Muslims are not extremist. There will never be a
conflict based on religion in here."


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