PAKISTAN: Renewed threats against Christians

ISLAMABAD, 5 November (IRIN) - A Pakistan-based human rights group is
worried about increasing attacks on Christians in the country following a
number of recent threats received by them in the south of Punjab Province.
The concern follows an attack on a church in the province in which 16 people
were killed.

"Recently, in the district of Muzaffargarh, near Multan in Pakistan's Punjab
Province, Islamic extremists have been hanging banners calling on Muslims to
kill Christians as part of their religious duty," Aftab Multan, the
executive secretary of the Justice and Peace Commission (JPC) in Multan,
told IRIN, on Monday.

He added that although Christian leaders persuaded those responsible for
hanging the banners to remove them, a few days later they had reappeared,
and that some threats had also been sent in the post and by telephone.

The mounting resentment towards the Christian community and those linked
with the West, Mughal said, was in response to the US-led air strikes on
Afghanistan. "There is a misconception among Muslims that Pakistani
Christians are somehow linked with the US. We need to correct them." He
explained that the JPC was also trying to address the Muslim community to
say that Christians were firstly Pakistanis and facing the same problems as
the Muslims in the country.

Following the attack, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf addressed the
nation, condemning it and vowing to catch the culprits. The incident took
place at St Dominic's Church in Bahawalpur in Punjab Province, in which 15
Christian worshippers and a Muslim policeman died instantly when they were
gunned down by what were thought to be Islamic terrorists.

According to witnesses, five men on two motorcycles entered the church lawn
and opened fire. Mughal said although some arrests had been made, it was
still unclear as to which groups the culprits belonged to.

"This was not the last incident, it may just be the beginning," Mughal said,
adding that JPC was demanding that the government protect minorities while
the US-led air strikes continued. He said church leaders across Pakistan
were very worried about the safety of their places of worship, and were
meeting in Islamabad in the next few days to work out a strategy to present
to the government.

Referring to the situation in Bahawalpur, Mughal said the church had
remained closed since the attack on 28 October, and that a special prayer
ceremony was to be held soon, after which the place of worship would reopen.
However, he said, Christians were now too scared to go back to that church
and others. "Attendance is low at churches across Pakistan," he said.
"People are taking their own weapons to church to ensure maximum safety.".

Christians make up 1.5 percent of the population in Pakistan, and are
concentrated in Punjab Province in cities such as Lahore, Rawalpindi,
Bahawalpur and Faisalabad.

Christians were angry, believing they had no future in this country, that
they were helpless and thinking about how they were going to survive, he
said. "It is going to take some time before they can begin to feel
comfortable again," he added.

The last time there was such an attack on the minority community in Pakistan
was in 1997 when the village of Shanti Nagar, near Multan, was burnt down.
Mughal warned that the same could happen again if the government did not act
fast in stopping extremist groups from lashing out.

Security has been stepped up at churches across Pakistan, and Christian
leaders have been advised to take precautions and restrict their movements
in and around cities.

At the Our Lady of Fatima Church in Islamabad, four armed officers are
carrying out thorough checks on everyone entering the building. "We had a
solidarity meeting with Muslim leaders last week who have been supportive,"
Fr Nevin told IRIN. "However, worshippers are a little frightened, and they
have also organised their own extra security at their homes."

A practising Christian, Sonia Rubiaqa, aged 18, told IRIN she was being
cautious in her movements around the city, especially on Fridays, which is
the Islamic holy day. "Some of my friends at school are always asking me why
I don't convert to Islam. I don't say anything, I just keep quiet. But I am
proud to be Christian," she said.


[ENDS]

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