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Living Under Fear

By Aftab Alexander Mughal

21 June, 2007

The murder of a Christian in Landi Kotal, North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) of Pakistan, in a very recent incident, once again endangered Christians of Charsadda, who received two different messages in May to be converted to Islam. A very small number of Christians, mainly belong to labor class, have been living in different cities of NWFP. A young man, Simi Salman was killed by some unknown person on June 13 in Tatra ground, Landi Kotal. Before Salman’s murder few Christian pastors were also killed in year 2005 and 2006 at different places in NWFP. Though police still has not arrested the culprits, Christian leaders suspect that the pastors were killed by militant groups.

In recent days, the Christians of Charsadda are facing threat of any attack by the militants. The Christians of Muslim Colony in Charsadda of NWFP, received a letter from Islamic militants on May 8 night threatening the Christians to convert to Islam within 10 days or else leave the area. Though local police has confirmed the incident, not taking any serious effort to discover the elements behind this heinous act. Several Christian families have fled their homes after receiving the threatening letter and others are living in constant fear. Even they have stopped their children from attending their schools.

No one can deny that Islamic militants are having strong presence in NWFP and are active in many parts of the province. They are closing girls’ schools, barber shops, CD and video shops. In many cases they bombed many CD and Video shops. Previously they have been writing letters to the Muslims for closing schools and shops. But it is the first time they had addressed to non-Muslims and asked them to convert to Islam or ready to face the consciousness.

There are only 7 Christian families living in the Colony while about 500 Christians live in different localities of Charsadda city. Majority belongs to the Church of Pakistan and a Pentecostal Church. Majority of them are living here before partition, 1947, and working in the local hospitals at low ranking jobs. Chaudhry Salim, a local Christian leader, told the press on May 24 that police is not taking this threat seriously. He said, "We as members of the Christian community are very much concerned about our safety and security."

A handwritten message in Urdu warned the Christians to convert to Islam by 17 May 2007 or face “dire consequences and bomb explosions”. After receiving the threatening letter, Christians went to the police station to request for security. According to Pastor Samuel, Sajjad Ali, deputy superintendent of police, ridiculed their request and considered this threatening letter just a joke.

After the deadline, Christians found another threatening message which was written on the wall opposite the Pentecostal Bible Church by Taliban’s Detonative Department or Taliban bomb-blast organization. Chaudhry Salim said these were two different incidents and the threat to the Christians remain. About 100 Christians signed a letter on May 18 and sent to President General Pervez Musharraf and the NWFP chief minister, Akram Durani, which says that the government should protect the lives of Christians.

Church leaders in Pakistan are convinced that Christian community is facing real threats from Islamic extremists. The previous incidents and the present scenario supports their concern. "The authorities in Pakistan have responded half-heartedly to the situation, sending only one policeman to protect the community, who is stationed at the door of the church," the National Council of Churches of Pakistan (NCCP), a representative body of Protestant churches in Pakistan said in a statement on May 24. According to another Church leader from Toba Tek Singh, Father Bonnie Mendes, who recently visited the Christians in Charsada, the police has been trying to downplay the threat. “I could clearly see two sets of reactions in almost all the people one of fear and in the younger people it was combined with anger,” Fr. Bonnie Mendes said.

Prang police have arrested two young men, Abdul Hasnat and Abdur Rashid, son of Abdul Aziz Khan, on May 31 for sending threatening letters to Christians. They told police that they had clash with Shanti and Rahail Masih, so they decided to harass him and his community in the area. They said they had decided this on their own and did not know about its repercussions. But Chaudhry Salim said he was not satisfied with the statements of the young boys. He said that letter was not found at Shanti and Rahail Masih’s house, but at the house of Michael John, a Christian union councilor, who does not have any dispute with the arrested Muslim boys. About a week ago police also arrested another Muslim boy, Jamshed, but later on, he was released on Christians’ suspicions.

Christians have been living under constant fear that any time they can be attacked by the militants, so many cannot sleep. Some families have already left the area, whilst others have sent their children and female members to their relatives living in other cities as a safety precaution. The National Commission of Justice and Peace (NCJP) chairperson, Archbishop Lawrence John Saldanha, and Executive Secretary Peter Jacob strongly condemned this act of intimidation of the small Christian community of these cities. They said, “The constitution of Pakistan guarantees protection of religious minorities and safeguards religious freedom.” Therefore, they said, the government is bound to ensure that the minority’s rights are safeguarded. They said such acts were spoiling the country’s image in the comity of nations.

Christians blame the local and national government for encouraging extremist elements. “Taliban and other extremist groups are openly functioning in many districts of FATA and NWFP. They are running a parallel government, but nobody stops them. Even now they are openly attacking the freedom of people in Islamabad through Lal Masjid and Jamia Hafsa,” a Christian said.

Catholic Bishop Anthony Lobo told the media, "We are taking this threat seriously because of the recent explosions (triggered) by self-styled Shari'a (Islamic law) imposers." According to Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), similar threats have been made to a Bible School in Peshawar , the capital of NWFP. Asif Daudzai, a spokesman for the provincial government, asked Christians not to be frightened, saying authorities were doing all they could to ensure their protection.

Christians are just 1.5 per cent of the total population of the country, and have very limited scope for their development. They are living under constant pressure due to religious prejudice and intolerance. Many laws are curtailing their freedom as an equal citizen of the state. Blasphemy law is a classic example, which has been widely misused against them. Though the constitution of Pakistan’s article 25-A describes that every citizen is equal before the law, contrarily, many other clauses of the constitution do not consider them equal citizen of the state. And this is all due to their religion. Pope Benedict XVI also urged safeguard of religious freedom of the religious minorities in Pakistan. On June 1, at the time of presentation of the letters of credence by the new Pakistani Ambassador to the Holy See Ms. Ayesha Riyaz, the Pope said that protection of religious freedom is a basic right, inherent in the very dignity. So it is vital to protect people who belong to religious minorities from acts of violence.

Not only the Christian of Charsada are terrified but all Christian communities living in NWFP are feeling intimidation from the militants. Everybody knows that militants not only give warning but they can attack as well.

Militants are mainly active in Lakki Marwat, Dera Ismail Khan, Bannu and Karak districts but their presence is also seen in the Lower Dir, Upper Dir, Swat, Mardan, Malakand, Peshawar, Nowshera, Tank, Hangu, Kohat, Mansehra, Kohistan, Swabi, Chitral and Charsadda districts. According to the South Asia Terrorism Portal, throughout 2006, approximately 163 people were killed in NWFP in more than 84 incidents. Just the first five months of year 2007 (till May 18) have already seen at least 149 people, including 100 civilians and 18 security force (SF) personnel, killed in the province, a clear index of the mounting violence. A significant proportion of these fatalities have occurred in suicide attacks, with at least six of the 10 suicide attacks in Pakistan in 2007 (till May 18) having occurred in the NWFP.

Historically, Charsadda district is a place, where Bacha Khan started his non violent movement 1929. Ironically, now the violent, extremist, elements are taking much ground in the same district.

Main target of extremists, generally in the whole district and specifically in the Charsadda City, are music shops, video stores, barber shops, health centers and women education institutions. Generally, this situation is paralyzing the life of a common person. Surprisingly, police is not protecting people, instead police has been advising video shop owners to stop this business and start something new.

Video shop owners have been receiving warning letter from Talibans. If they do not comply the orders their shops are targeted and exploded. In a bloody attack a federal minister was targeted. On March 29 in Charsada a suicide bomber attacked a public rally of federal interior minister, Aftab Ahmad Khan Sherpao in which about 29 people were killed and many injured. Minister and his son barely escaped. Two bomb blasts at different locations in Charsada district, some 15 miles northeast Peshawar, destroyed around 12 music, video and barber shops on May 3. On May 9, at Amir Abad, Charsada, an explosion destroyed four music and video shops. On May 16, unidentified persons in Charsada city delivered pamphlets to owners of video and CD shops asking them to wind up their business within 10 days. In a recent incdent, on June 12, a bomb blast destroyed a small music and vedio shop of Farmanullah Khan in the town. Khan recived a threaten letter to close his business on March 23, which he ignored.

“If a federal interior minister is not safe in the same city, Charsada, from the extremists, what one can imagine about the poor and voiceless Christians,” Ijaz Farhat, a Christian lawyer said.

Many are of the view that state is reluctant to control these elements and even supporting them. But some think that the state is unable to enforce the rule of law. In the either way common people are the victims.

Police sources disclosed that in NWFP mainly Taliban and a banned organization, Shariat-e-Muhammadi (which is active in Malakand division) is behind the suicide attacks and other explosions. According to BBC, since 2004 till now, in 106 different attacks 127 people died and 379 injured. During last three and half years, 31 different attacks were stopped by the police before those occurred. The number of attacks were on their rise during 2006. And in the first five months of 2007 in 38 attacks 100 people were killed and 154 injured.

Police sources claimed that the incidents of attacks have also some linkages with Jamia Fareedia, a subsidiary of Lal Masjid, Islamabad. On June, 1 female students of Jamia Hafsa and 10 male students of Jamia Fareedia (both Islamic seminaries are subsidiary of Lal Masjid) raided to Pakistan Institute of Medical Sciences (PIMS), Islamabad, where they would punish the Christian staff and nurses for an alleged blasphemy allegation. Some Muslim nurses rang to the administration of Lal Masjid to interfere in the alleged blasphemy issue. Fortunately, police timely intervened and Lal Masjid barged did not created any serious problem for Christian girls and the authorities of PIMS. The PIMS administration filed an FIR against some un-known person under blapshmey law and terminated 3 Christian nurses and 2 Christian teachers from the Institute.

All Pakistan Minorities Alliance (APMA) chairman Shahbaz Bhatti told the media during a press conference that the students of Lal Masjid allegedly wanted to kill Christian students.

According to the media reports, extremists operating in NWFP and the authorities of Lal Masjid have close connections. Less than a month these militants threatened Christians in Charsada and Islamabad. If Christians are not safe in the capital, where they would be safe?


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