Christians in Pakistan Fear a "Christmas Bloodbath"

Threatened With New Attacks

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ISTANBUL, Turkey, DEC. 4, 2001 ( Five weeks after Islamic extremists murdered 15 Christians in a worship service, church leaders across Pakistan say their congregations remain «tense and fearful» as Christmas approaches, Compass Direct reports.

«My people are a bit afraid,» Bishop John Victor Mall of the Church of Pakistan said from Multan. «I would not say they have lost their faith, but they have definitely lost their confidence.»

Bishop Mall said many Christians were uneasy about attending Advent programs in his diocese, which includes the Bahawalpur congregation which was attacked Oct. 28. Normally well attended, the Christmas celebrations are often held in the evenings after dark, he noted.

The Protestant bishop said he met last week with Multan´s deputy inspector general (DIG) of police, who promised to increase security arrangements for all the local churches´ Christmas programs this year.

«But the DIG cannot put many policemen everywhere, so some Christians will be afraid to come,» the bishop said.

Threats of a «Christmas bloodbath» against Christians have proliferated in Pakistan since late October, when the al-Qaida terrorist organization demanded the death of two Christians in retaliation for every Muslim killed in the U.S. military strikes in Afghanistan. Christians compose less than 3% of the national population of Pakistan.

The Bahawalpur massacre, carried out by masked gunmen two days after the terrorist threat came out in Pakistani newspapers, was the worst single massacre of Christians in Pakistan´s 54-year history.

The slayers had shouted Islamic slogans while mowing down their victims, declaring their attack was «just the beginning» of making Afghanistan and Pakistan the «graveyard of Christians.»

«It´s the unpredictability of it all,» another Protestant bishop from the Punjab commented.

«It can happen anytime, anywhere,» agreed a Christian layman in Karachi. «Yesterday it was Bahawalpur; tomorrow it can be Karachi, Lahore, Peshawar, or anywhere.»

Within a week of the Bahawalpur killings, Pakistan police authorities reported that about 120 suspects from hard-line Islamist groups had been rounded up. However, so far only one man, who was accused of sending faxes on behalf of the Lashkar-e-Umar militants claiming responsibility for the massacre, has been identified by police investigators.

«The authorities are always very secretive about investigations into attacks against Christians,» a Church leader in Lahore told Compass last week. «They don´t want to go out of their way to be seen to punish Muslims.»

Yet, Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf´s initial handling of the Bahawalpur massacre «left no doubt of government sincerity» in declaring that such acts of terrorism will not be tolerated, one Protestant bishop said. Police authorities promptly stepped up security around churches, he noted.

«But what about the individual Christians who are coming out of their houses every day to go to work?» asked M.L. Shahani, a Baptist layman and lawyer in the Supreme Court of Pakistan. «The president must take concrete steps toward confidence-building in the non-Muslim minorities of Pakistan. Without that, the Christian community will be left in the lurch.»

Only nine days after the Bahawalpur massacre, another member of the city´s Christian community was shot and killed at his job by suspected Islamist militants.

Benjamin Bashir, 25, a member of St. Dominic´s Catholic Church, was riddled with 19 bullets as he guarded the strategic installations at the Quetta airport on Nov. 7. The Airport Security Force officer had been the sole provider for his mother and family since his father went blind, said Catholic Bishop Andrew Francis of Multan.

Two days later, another Catholic was shot to death in Peshawar, capital of the northwest frontier province near the Afghan border. Married, with two small children, Waheed Paul was last seen by his wife on the morning of Nov. 9, as he went in the gates to his office. According to CRAA, an Afghan-run NGO that employed him as an accountant, he did not report for work that morning.

Although known as a devout Christian, Paul was not involved in any church ministry. «It seems clear that the cause for killing him was the fact that he was a Christian,» a source said.

In Bahawalpur, the main sanctuary of St. Dominic´s Catholic Church, where the massacre took place, was re-consecrated in a solemn Mass on Nov. 15, celebrated by Bishop Francis.

Now back in use by both the local Catholic community and the small Protestant congregation, the prayer hall has been scrubbed of the bloodstains, fresh jute mats placed on the floor and shattered windows repaired. However, the pockmarks of 142 bullets still deface its walls and altar.

All five of the Christians seriously wounded in the attack are «improving slowly,» Bishop Francis said, but two of them are still hospitalized.

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