Catholic Priest Murdered in Pakistan
Homicide Linked to Restoration of Former Parish School

by Barbara G. Baker

ISTANBUL, July 7 (Compass) -- Six gunmen shot and killed a Roman Catholic
priest in his home in eastern Pakistan in the early hours of July 5, according
to church and police authorities.

Father George Ibrahim, 38, was gunned down about 1 a.m. while sleeping in his
home near Okara, 180 miles south of Islamabad in the Punjab province.

The night watchman of the Renala Khurd Catholic Church told police
investigating the crime that six unidentified men overpowered him shortly after
midnight, threatening to kill him if he resisted or sounded any alarm. After
shooting the priest, the assailants all escaped. There have been no reported
arrests or claims of responsibility.

According to Roman Catholic Archbishop of Lahore Lawrence J. Saldanha, "the
main motive" for the priest's murder appeared to be linked to the government's
decision last fall to return ownership of a former church school to Fr. Ibrahim's 
Catholic parish.

Initially founded and run by Catholic sisters, the parish school had been
returned to the church last October after 30 years under state management. "But
the process of getting it back was very, very difficult," Saldanha told Compass
by telephone from Lahore.

Pakistan's minority Christian community had been stripped of its Urdu-language
private schools in the Punjab and Sindh provinces in 1972, when the government
nationalized the institutions without compensation and imposed state
management. But after the Supreme Court declared the forced nationalization
unconstitutional 20 years later, private school owners began to file for court
restoration of their former institutions.

Government-hired administrators and teachers of these schools have actively
resisted Islamabad's orders to return the institutions to church control,
protesting the anticipated loss of their jobs. "They weren't acting on behalf
of the government, because the government was trying to get them out," Saldanha
said. "But they were using very influential ways to remain in control."

According to Peter Jacob, executive secretary of the Catholic Church's National
Commission for Justice and Peace (NCJP), both the former headmistress of the
expropriated Renala Khurd school and officials of the local education
department had refused to cooperate in the government-ordered transfer.

The archbishop said he was not aware of any direct death threats made against
the priest. "But in a general sense, he felt insecure, he felt unsafe," he
admitted.

Saldanha denied police claims reported in the Pakistani press that the church
watchman had been injured in the attack. "The watchman was not wounded. They
left him alone, and they went only for the priest," he said. Allegations that
the priest himself had "opened fire on the intruders" were also unfounded, he
said.

"The Christian community feels deeply disturbed at this cold-blooded attack on
a priest who had devoted his life to the selfless service of the poor and
downtrodden," Saldanha declared in a written statement to the press on July 5.

Fr. Ibrahim was buried yesterday in his home village of Khushpur. Memorial
services planned for him there will be held on July 10, which would have been
the priest's 39th birthday.

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