Pakistani Christians a barometer of extremism

As a Christian in Pakistan, Rosalind Inayat knows how to keep her head down.

"These people [Islamic extremists] think that because these other countries in Europe and America are Christian, we must belong to them," says Mrs. Inayat after a Sunday service at St. Francis Roman Catholic Church in Rawalpindi, near the capital, Islamabad. "They don't understand that we are Pakistani. This is our country, too."

During the Gulf War in 1991, Islamic extremists targeted Christians, burning churches, beating men and harassing women and children. At the time, Inayat lived in the US, often facing hostility when she was mistaken for Iraqi.

Pakistan's Christians felt extremist wrath again in 1998, when the US sent missiles to destroy Osama bin Laden's suspected terrorist training camps in Afghanistan in retaliation for the bombing of two US embassies in East Africa.

Like the proverbial canary in a coal mine, the tiny Christian community - less than 2 percent of the 141 million population - is often first to feel trouble in a country riven by sectarian strife.

But now, with extremists staging near-daily protests calling the US-led attacks on Mr. bin Laden and his Afghan Taliban hosts an assault on all Muslims, many Christians say the mood is different. They say they have faith in the promises of President Gen. Pervez Musharraf's government to protect Christians and other minorities.

"This government has said there is no compromise with extremism," says Father Munawar Bhatti, pastor of St. Francis Church. "Because if trouble starts here, soon it will be between ethnic groups, with Sindhis versus Punjabis, or between sects, with Sunnis versus Shias."

Even with police and security forces deployed around the country, there have been sectarian skirmishes. Police in Karachi, a city marked by frequent violence, say nearly 20 people have been killed since Sept. 11 in fighting between majority Sunni Muslims and the small but influential Shiite Muslim minority. On Saturday, an unidentified youth tossed a grenade at a police patrol in Karachi, the third such attack in 48 hours, police said.

"What is happening now is too late, too little," says Hina Jilani, secretary general of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, of the effort to rein in extremist groups. "The government of Pakistan has to answer to the public for bringing this present crisis, because for the past 25 years, the government was sponsoring extremists," especially Islamic groups that trained in Pakistan to fight the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

Once that conflict ended a decade later, extremists turned their sights on Pakistan, she says. Pakistan has experienced a shift away from religious tolerance as both democratic and military rulers, prodded on by religious parties, pushed through Islamic-inspired laws - forbidding conversion of Muslims, for instance, or blasphemy against the prophet Muhammad. "The state is showing less of a true commitment to stamping out radicalism at home and more commitment to helping America do things in Afghanistan," Ms. Jilani says.

For now, Pakistan's government seems to have extremist groups under control, says the Rev. Irshad John, pastor of St. Thomas Church, which follows the Episcopalian or Anglican tradition. But Christians could be targeted, he warns, after reports of heavy Afghan civilian casualties in the US-led airstrikes. "Whenever innocent people are killed, the same situation can occur to Christians in Pakistan."

Azam Moon, a St. Francis parishioner, says everything depends on how US objectives are perceived. "If the war is against terrorism, no problem," he says. "But if the war is against religion, then it will be a problem for all minorities."

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