Flashback to 2001: Pakistani Christians feared backlash from attack on Taliban

October 11, 2011

Even before the U.S.-led bombing of Afghanistan began 10 years ago to drive the Taliban from power, Christians in Pakistan were already fearing the backlash they would suffer from violent local Islamists. I was in Islamabad at the time and a Pakistani priest mentioned his concern to me during a visit to his church.  “They will want to take revenge on America, which is a Christian nation, so they will attack the nearest Christians they can find,” he said. I immediately drove over to French Colony, one of the city’s biggest slums for Christians, traditionally the lowest class in Pakistani society. Following is the story on what I found.

Although French Colony was never attacked, several churches were hit in the weeks following the start of the bombing in Afghanistan. Pressure on Christians there continues to this day. For an update on the Taliban, see Q+A-Ten years on, who are the Taliban today?

(A Pakistani policeman stands guard outside St. Patrick’s church in Karachi December 24, 2004. Security was tightened at churches throughout the country after a wave of attacks a decade ago/Athar Hussain)

War, revenge fears stalk Pakistani Christian slums

By Tom Heneghan

ISLAMABAD, Sept 27, 2001  (Reuters) – If the Islamic world erupts in fury at a U.S. attack on Afghanistan, fear and trembling will stalk the narrow alleys of a Pakistani slum called French Colony. The slum dwellers are frightened enough already. In their bleaker moments, they imagine Muslim hordes swooping down on their hovels to sack and burn, maybe even to kill.

Their problem? The garbagemen and gravediggers of French Colony are Christians, a small and scorned minority in Islamic Pakistan, and they are the nearest targets around. The same fears are rumbling through Christian communities throughout Pakistan, where about two percent of the 140 million population follow Jesus Christ rather than the Prophet Mohammad.

“The Muslims can’t go to America to take revenge, so they might take it here,” explained Father William Rahat, a Roman Catholic priest in Pakistan’s placid capital, Islamabad.

French Colony – so named because it sprung up close to the French embassy – is so worried that some of its men stand guard with sticks every night at the gates into the walled-in slum. “All the Christians are afraid the Muslims will attack us if there is an American attack in Afghanistan,” said Shafiq Ashiq, 22, a sweeper at a nearby office. “We are all praying.”

BLASPHEMY BLACKMAIL

Considered the lowest class, fated mainly for dirty work Muslims refuse to do, most Christians live in ramshackle housing on the fringes of town, where a dirty stream provides their water and tapped lines their electrical power. They have become even more vulnerable since 1991 when Pakistan, to please its Islamic fundamentalists, made blasphemy against Islam a crime punishable by death.

The testimony of a Muslim man, with only flimsy evidence, became enough to put someone behind bars, or worse. Human rights groups soon complained that blasphemy charges were blackmail used to pressure minorities or justify attacks on them. “If you’re accused of blasphemy, it’s finished, there’s no justice anymore,” said Father John Nevin, 64, pastor of Our Lady of Fatima church not far from French Colony.

Any U.S. bombing of Afghanistan could be seen here as an attack by a Christian country on an Islamic state and provoke a local response, said Nevin, a Catholic priest from Maynooth in Ireland who has worked in Pakistan for 35 years. “If the Americans bomb Afghanistan and maybe destroy a mosque, then we would have a problem here,” he said, adding that Washington had cultivated misunderstanding with its rhetoric. The terms that were used, like crusade, were very dangerous. That was provocative for the Muslim world.”

Father Sarfraz Simon, 30, Nevin’s Pakistani curate, said Pakistan’s increasingly powerful fundamentalists have been stoking the tension between Muslims and Christians. “They are trying to colour this as a religious war and that’s why we’re afraid,” he said. “If ordinary people take it as a religious war, ultimately they will attack our churches.”

Catholics are the majority among Christians here, followed by many Protestant denominations including the Church of Pakistan.

“ONLY GOD WILL HELP”

The 600 people in French Colony say the worst has already begun. “Muslims attacked a church and killed two Christians in Rawalpindi on September 17,” gravedigger Mushtaq Masih, 40, said with more conviction than proof. It was only a rumour. The men all say the current soldier-president, General Pervez Musharraf, is genuinely concerned about the safety of the minorities, something they couldn’t say about General Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq who launched the Islamisation drive in the 1980s.

Police are now posted at Fatima church during Mass and visit the Colony now and then, but the slumdwellers are not reassured. “The police are not permanent, only temporary,” complained Riaz Masih, 25, a teacher. “If there is a war, they will not help us, they will help the Muslims. Only God will help us. We are alone, we are a minority, we are helpless.”

In the Colony’s one-room school, Bushra Barkhe paused while teaching children the Arabic alphabet to explain how she would defend them in an attack: “We will pray and read the Bible.”

In fact, Nevin said, the slums in and around Islamabad should have less to fear because they are in the capital, not far from an army of foreign journalists here to cover the Afghan crisis. “It’s when you move down into the Punjab, into the villages, that the real trouble starts,” he said. “They take the blasphemy law into family feuds and fights over land.”

One such incident occured in 1997, Muslim rioters in southern Punjab province sacked 13 churches and a school and burned and looted hundreds of houses, saying some Christians had committed blasphemy by throwing torn pages of the Koran into a mosque.

VULNERABILITY IS NOTHING NEW

The vulnerability the Christians feel now is nothing new. Back during the British Raj, many untouchables and other poor embraced their colonial masters’ religion, possibly hoping to better their station. Others converted after being taught or treated in missionary schools and clinics. For the majority Hindus in India and Muslims in Pakistan, however, they remained the lowest of the low.

Their fate was even more complicated in Pakistan, which was founded as a Muslim homeland in 1947 and is as firmly rooted ideologically in Islam as another homeland state born in that same period, Israel, is rooted in Judaism.

Despite it all, Christians loyally trooped out to their churches on Thursday to take part in a National Solidarity Day that President Musharraf has called to rally support. At Fatima church, filled to capacity, the congregation sang the national anthem as the Pakistani flag was raised. “I’m proud of Pakistan,” Shafiq Ashiq said.

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