Pakistan's Christians fear backlash

As war strengthens anti-American feelings, the minority group cites a rise in threats and harassment.

Since the fall of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, at least 50 foreigners and nationals in Pakistan have been killed and dozens injured in a series of terrorist attacks. Most of them had one thing in common: They were Christians.

Now, as the US fights another enemy in the region, Pakistan's large Christian minority is once again living in fear of the country's suspected Al Qaeda-backed extremists.

"The Christians of Pakistan are the prime target of militants who believe that by killing Christians and attacking churches they may avenge America's attacks. We have suffered during the recent Afghan war and are now tense and scared thinking of [an] Iraq war," says Shahbaz Bhatti, president of Pakistan's Christian Liberation Front, a leading Christian organization here.

In the months leading up to the US invasion of Iraq, extremist groups whipped up anti-American sentiments, holding protest demonstrations across the country. Protests have continued since the war started with thousands of Muslims gathering in Multan Friday following an even larger protest in Peshawar earlier last week. Effigies of President Bush and US flags have been burned as extremists decry the "War against Muslims," and clerics have urged Muslims to wage a holy war against "infidels."

The protests have been organized by some of Pakistan's extremists, most of them products of madrassahs and many of them affiliated with religious political parties, like the Jamiat-e Ulema Islami (JUI).

Ahead of last October's general election in Pakistan, the JUI and other extremist parties formed an alliance, capturing a majority in the Northwest Frontier province . The JUI and other extremist parties follow the strict Deoband school of thought, which preaches jihad, or war against Christians and Jews.

"The provocative speeches and literature distributed are like a death warrant for us [Pakistani Christians]. For the militants we are infidels and therefore targets as well," Mr. Bhatti says.

Since the government of President Pervez Musharraf sided with America in its war against terror, Pakistan has banned five militant groups. Hundreds of activists were rounded up by the authorities in their campaign to root out extremism from Pakistan. Several members of militant groups that fought in Afghanistan and Indian-administered Kashmir were arrested and are now facing trial on charges of carrying out the attacks against foreign interests and Pakistani Christians.

Police officials say these militants belong to a banned Sunni militant wing, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, mainly active in sectarian attacks, and Pakistan-based banned Kashmiri groups. Sources in the investigating agencies say these militants had joined hands with Al Qaeda operatives and Taliban militiamen after the US war in Afghanistan.

Violence against Westerners or Christians in Pakistan has an antecedent in the first Gulf War. "There was latent animosity against us. We were threatened, we were harassed, and some of our community members were beaten up during Gulf War. But the rise in extremism during the 1990s and with American attacks on Afghanistan it has become a field of land mines for us," Patrick Preetum, a Christian community leader in Taxila, says.

"It is like we have been hostage to the changed hostile atmosphere controlled by militants," Mr. Preetum said. Preetum's wife, Muneera, suffered a leg injury during an attack on a Christian charity hospital in Taxila last year and still hasn't recovered.

"I and my colleagues even now have nightmares about that dreadful event when bearded men attacked us. We thought that fear would be over, but now it looks like everything has come afresh ... threats ... attacks," Muneera says.

She says she has received threats from Islamic militants, believed to be associates of those arrested in the hospital attack, where Muneera worked. "Every time there is a hearing of the case, I receive death threats. I am a welfare worker and can put my life in danger. As a staunch Christian, I believe my fate is in the hands of God, but I cannot put my children in danger."

In Christian neighborhoods in Karachi, extremists issue warning. "I was sitting on the road pavement with my friends when armed bearded men came to me and said be prepared for death, if our Muslim brothers are killed by Americans in Iraq," a young Christian said by phone from Karachi. "Everybody is harassed here. My parents do not let me go outside after sunset."

Around 5 million Christians live across Pakistan. Most belonged to the scheduled caste, or untouchables, in the Hindu caste system and were converted to Christianity during British colonial rule before the division of the subcontinent in 1947. Most now live in poor neighborhoods, known as Christian paras.

"They were a target of the Hindu caste system, then the Muslims also look down upon them and treated as untouchables. But whenever there is anger against the Americans, the militants treat them as Christian Americans and target them," says Arif Jamal, a Muslim columnist in Islamabad.

Human rights activists say the minority community is already discriminated against and marginalized, and faces persecution by Islamic militants under the controversial blasphemy law, which prescribes the death penalty to non-Muslims who insult the Koran, the Holy Prophet, or Islam as a religion, with "nonexistent" evidence and proof, activists claim.

"We are very worried and feel insecure in the present situation," says Cecil Chaudhary, a Christian leader in Lahore. "We appeal to Mr. Musharraf to provide security to our community and save us from these militants."

The Christian leaders say the community members have been told not to gather at public places en masse and take extra care in the places where extremists hold anti-American protests.

Officials say strict security measures have been taken to protect foreign interests and Christians living in Pakistan. "There are intelligence reports that Al Qaeda supporters may try to destabilize the situation," a senior police official in Karachi says.

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