Pakistan's Christians under siege, bishop says

  • August 21, 2008

{mosimage}TORONTO -It was like a “tornado” which killed three people in the church neighbourhood in Lahore, Pakistan, rocked a century-old cathedral and caused hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages to nearby church buildings and schools.

The mid-March suicide bombing wasn’t specifically aimed at Christians. But it shows how this minority group continues to live under a threat of violence in the politically fragile country, Archbishop Lawrence Saldanha told The Catholic Register during a visit to Toronto on July 31.

“In suicide attacks, innocent people die. Some Christians die,” said Saldanha, chairperson of the Pakistan bishops’ conference’s National Commission for Justice and Peace and a former associate pastor at Toronto’s Precious Blood parish.

Christians are being targeted by Islamic extremists who want them to convert to Islam, he said. The threat has intensified since the war in Afghanistan and the increased Taliban presence in Pakistan, Saldanha added.

Of the country’s close to 170 million people, an overwhelming majority is Muslim. Christians make up the dominant minority group with about one million Catholics and one million Protestants, Saldanha said.

A general pattern of violence has emerged in Pakistan in the past few decades, said Prof. Arne Kislenko, an adjunct professor at the University of Toronto’s Munk Centre for International Studies. Minorities are usually targeted during political crises in Pakistan, he said in a telephone interview from Berlin.

“Christians have endured a fair amount of persecution lately, especially under (former President Pervez) Musharraf because of his own personal connections to the West and suspicions that he’s supported almost exclusively by the United States,” he said.

Pakistan has been engulfed in a political crisis since the assassination of presidential candidate Benazir Bhutto in December. Musharraf’s resignation as president on Aug. 18 before an upcoming impeachment vote demonstrates how pro-Musharraf forces and opposition parties have been jockeying for power in a country that’s considered a key Western ally in the United States’ global “war on terror,” especially in Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, the recent attack in Lahore was part of twin suicide bombings on March 11 which killed 27 people. A government building was reportedly the main target.

On the day of the bombing, Saldanha was in his office at 9:30 a.m. when he said he felt a “very powerful wind” and heard a loud bang. He later found out that it was no tornado but a bomb blast. Saldanha said the three-year-old daughter of the church’s driver was one of three peopled killed by the blast.

As for the damages, the bishop’s residence had all of its doors, windows and glass panes smashed. A Caritas building, the parish hall and offices, two Catholic schools and the apartment of church employees were also damaged. And 10 of the cathedral’s historic stained glass windows were shattered.

Experts say a rising tide of Islamic extremism has led to such attacks and increasing intolerance against minority groups in Pakistan.

About 500 anonymous letters have been received in recent months by Christians in the northern part of the country which threatened death if the recipients did not convert to Islam, Saldanha said. He added that young Christian girls in northern Pakistan are also being forced to marry Muslim boys and convert.

According to Kislenko, a movement towards Islamization has been underway over the past three decades in the country. The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the United States and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have galvanized the militant view in Pakistan, he said.

“The best friend that Osama bin Laden and other radicals have had is George Bush because he played right into the hands of this radicalization,” Kislenko said. “It gave them the simplistic  worldview they crave.”

But there could be a silver lining from an unlikely source. Instead of plunging the country into further violence, Bhutto’s assasination seemed to rally voters to the opposition parties who have accused Musharraf of being a “dictator.” Moderates won over pro-Musharraf candidates during February presidential elections.

Even so, attacks like the ones in mid-March are still a cause of concern for Saldanha.

The Pakistan government, however, said minorities are being protected. Mamoona Amjed, spokesperson for the Pakistan High Commission in Canada, said in an e-mail that the government “treats its minorities as a sacred trust and has taken all necessary steps to ensure that people belonging to different faiths continue to live in peace and harmony and freely practise their religious beliefs.” She added that Pakistan’s constitution “safeguards equal rights to minorities and minorities are well integrated in the society.”

Saldanha said the church community is still awaiting help and compensation promised by the local government.

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