terror targets Christians
September 25, 2002, gunmen entered the offices of the
Idara-e-Amn-o-Insaf (Institute for Peace and Justice), a Pakistani
Christian charity located in the country's biggest city, Karachi.
Victims were tied up in chairs with their hands behind their backs,
their mouths taped, before being shot point-blank in the head,
according to Karachi Police Chief Kamal Shah. Early police reports
suggested that three of the victims were Muslims, though
subsequently all seven were claimed to be Christians. Shah stated
that the police were questioning an office assistant who was tied up
and beaten by the attackers, but not shot. He is being questioned on
how the gunmen got into the office, which had an electronic door
that could only be opened from the inside. The office assistant told
the police there were two gunmen involved in the shooting. The
Christian group has been in operation for 30 years, working with
poor municipal and textile workers to press for basic worker rights,
and organizing programs with local human rights groups.
Pakistani Information Minister Nisar Memon condemned the attack,
saying those who carried it out were enemies of Pakistan. He also
extended the assurance that Pakistan's cooperation with the world
community in the war against terrorism would continue. In subsequent
statements, the police and even General Pervez Musharraf have
suggested that the Indian intelligence agency, the Research &
Analysis Wing (R&AW), could be behind the latest killings.
However, senior Pakistani journalist M.B. Naqvi has suggested that
the killers are probably militant Islamists. This month, police in
Karachi had arrested 23 members of Harkat-ul-Mujahedeen Al-Almi,
which is believed to be behind many of the attacks in recent months.
There is no doubt that General Musharraf has not been able to crush
all the militants, and reports of various assassination attempts on
him have also been circulating in the Press. It is widely suspected
that the militants continue to receive help and protection from
disgruntled elements within the Army and the secret services, though
the possibility of a coup against Musharraf remains remote.
3.8 million Christians constitute some 2.5 per cent of Pakistan's
total population. Concentrated mainly in the Punjab and in the port
city of Karachi, most of them belong to the poorest sections of
society. Mission hospitals and schools have been the main avenue for
social mobility for those among them who succeed in getting an
education. Very few openings are possible for them in the mainstream
public and private sectors, where religious and caste prejudices
against them abound.
The climate against the minorities in Pakistan began to harden
during the regime of General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq (1977-88). He
introduced a system of separate electorates in 1985 under which
Christians and other non-Muslims voted separately for reserved seats
for non-Muslims in the various legislative assemblies. The Blasphemy
Law of 1986 made any insult to Islam or the Prophet Muhammad a penal
offence punishable with death. Over the years, many Christians have
been charged with blasphemy, and although death sentences passed in
the lower courts have been commuted to lesser sentences or
acquittals, the general atmosphere has become increasingly hostile.
Violent attacks on Christian churches and property have been
occurring since the late 1980s.
General Musharraf, who captured power in a coup on October 12, 1999,
was widely believed to favour a modern type of Islam, and he
initially made some remarks in that direction. This resulted in loud
protests from the Islamists who had been enjoying state patronage
for many years. The result was that Musharraf quickly retreated to a
policy of inaction vis-à-vis the various Islamist groups. These
extremists had, for years, been operating in Afghanistan and
Indian-administered Kashmir. Almost all of them adhered to a
puritanical type of militant Sunni Islam. The Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT)
and the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen (HuM)
were the biggest among these. They openly conducted their propaganda
and recruited cadres from bases in various parts of Pakistan, and
the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) and some senior army officers
were directly involved in the activities of these groups.
After September 11, 2001, General Musharraf decided to abandon the
Taliban regime in Afghanistan, and Pakistan joined the
anti-terrorism coalition. The Americans were offered all help,
including access to military airfields and seaports. Such a dramatic
reversal of policy was greatly resented by the Islamists who
organized mass protests all over Pakistan. Things came to a head on
October 7, when the bombing of Afghanistan began. The fall of the
Taliban regime and the liquidation of the Al
Qaeda network on Afghan territory made the Pakistani
Islamists look for revenge. They began to target native Christians
Thus, on October 28, 2001, gunmen opened fire on Christian
worshippers in Bahawalpur, a town in southern Punjab. 16 Christians
were killed and many injured. The culprits managed to escape and
were never captured. On March 17, 2002 a grenade attack took place
on a Protestant church in a heavily guarded diplomatic quarter of
Islamabad, resulting in the death of five people. Among the dead
were an American woman who worked at the US embassy and her
17-year-old daughter. On May 8, 2002, a suicide bomber killed 11
French Engineers. On June 14, a bomb exploded outside the US
Consulate in Karachi, killing 12 Pakistanis. On August 9, assailants
hurled grenades at worshippers leaving a church on the grounds of a
Presbyterian hospital in Taxila, 25 miles northwest of Islamabad.
Four nurses were killed and 25 people wounded. Four days earlier,
attackers had raided a Christian school 40 miles east of Islamabad.
Six persons were killed in that outrage.
Western governments, church leaders and human rights organizations
have protested against the continuing violence against Christians
and Westerners in Pakistan. The European Union and the United
Nations have expressed great concern over the fact that Pakistan has
been converted into a base by terrorists. The reaction from
Washington, however, has been more muted. It seems that the
Americans do not want to destabilize the present Pakistani
government, whose cooperation in the campaign against Al Qaeda has
been to their full satisfaction.
Author is an Associate Professor,
Department of political science, Stockholm University
By arrangement with Institute for
Conflict Management, New Delhi