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'Our Fears Have Come True,' Says Pakistani Bishop After Massacre In Church

An emotional funeral was held October 29 at St Dominic's Church in the town of Bahawalpur in Pakistan's Punjab province for the 15 members of the Church of Pakistan massacred inside the same church during a Sunday service.

Unidentified gunmen sprayed bullets on the Protestant congregation just before 9 am local time on 28 October as participants were singing the closing hymn of the Sunday service at this Catholic church, used by the local Church of Pakistan congregation for its services.

Among the dead was the church's pastor, Emmanuel Allah Ditta, who was leading the 100-member congregation when the gunmen stormed the church after killing a policeman on guard at the church gates. The government had posted police security at the request of the Christian community, who felt they needed protection after the start of the United States-led military action against Afghanistan.

"Fifteen of our people have been killed. Five are critical in hospital and 10 others have been discharged [from hospital] after treatment for minor injuries," said Church of Pakistan Bishop John Victor Mall of the Multan diocese. No groups had claimed responsibility for the killings.

Talking to ENI over the phone from Bahawalpur -- 100 kilometres from his diocesan office -- where he rushed on Sunday on hearing of the tragedy, Bishop Mall said: "We have been feeling very insecure [after the bombing of Afghanistan began on 7 October] and now, our fears have come true."

Bishop Mall said that "though the government provided security to us, this shows how vulnerable we are".

Dominican nun Anna Bakshi, a witness to events on Sunday, said: "Not a single wall of the church is without bullet marks. Those who ran to the sacristy and hid themselves escaped unhurt."

Principal of the Dominican convent school adjacent to the Catholic church, Bakshi told ENI that she "was terrified by the sound of the shooting of the automatic guns" coming from the church.

"Everything was over in five minutes, and I saw four men with beards running away from the church. The scene inside the church was heart-breaking with even small children and women lying in pool of blood," recounted the nun, one of the first to enter the church after the shootings.

Roman Catholic Bishop Andrew Francis of Multan said: "The alter is riddled with bullet marks. They [the gunmen] have rained bullets on our people and there is blood all over the church." Bishop Francis also hurried to Bahawalpur as soon as he heard about the shootings inside the Catholic church.

"I certainly feel that it is a pro-Taliban outfit that has carried out the attack," Bishop Francis told ENI.

Churches in Pakistan had been demanding that the government provide security to churches and Christian institutions, fearing that angry crowds would vent their ire on the minority Christian community if the US and its allies attacked Afghanistan in the name of countering terrorism.

"We were concerned about our security but never thought that something of this sort would happen to us," said the Dominican nun. "I feel that this [the massacre] is retaliation for all that is happening in Afghanistan now."

The people are "so scared that they did not want to take the bodies to their homes", preferring to keep them at the church until the funeral was over because of the large police presence around the church after the massacre, the nun added.

The funeral ceremony was attended by four bishops, including the moderator of the Church of Pakistan, Bishop S.K. Dass. Nearly 5,000 people joined the funeral procession to the cemetery.

Bishop Dass described the massacre as an act of "revenge" by militant Islamic groups "thinking that Christians are supporters of America".

He added that continued attacks on Afghanistan would expose Christians to greater risk.

In a statement released on 28 October, the National Council of Churches in Pakistan, expressing "utmost grief and sorrow" over the killings, deplored "this heinous and barbarous act of terrorism" and demanded that "the Government of Pakistan should hold a judicial inquiry and arrest the culprits and bring them to justice".

"The Government of Pakistan should also take appropriate steps to ensure the safety of all, particularly the Christian community, shocked by this horrible action of the terrorists," the NCCP said.

The NCCP groups the Church of Pakistan, Presbyterian Church, Salvation Army and Association of Reformed Presbyterian Churches -- accounting for nearly half of the three million Christians in Pakistan.

Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf condemned the attack, blaming it on "trained terrorist organisations".

"The methods used and the inhuman tactics employed clearly indicates involvement of trained terrorist organisations bent upon creating discord and disharmony in Pakistan where Christians and Muslims have always lived in peace with mutual respect for each other," Musharraf said in his condolence message, according to the daily newspaper Dawn.

Bishop Mall said that the federal government has announced that it would offer ex gratia payments of100,000 rupees (US$1,615) to relatives for each of those killed and the provincial state government of Punjab has declared that it would contribute 200,000 rupees each (US$3,230) to the relatives of those killed, as well as a smaller amount to the injured.

However, Victor Azariah, NCCP general secretary, told ENI from NCCP offices in Lahore that the Christians in Pakistan need "more than monetary compensation".

"This is the worst attack on us [Pakistani Christians] in our history. We want the government to try its best to keep us safe," said Azariah.

Asked whether Christians would carry out street protests against the massacre, Azariah replied: "We cannot do much in this kind of a situation. There is already lot of tension. It would be better not to go for such protests."

The NCCP will hold an emergency meeting on 31 October to decide on church strategy for dealing with the "present situation", he added.

The Christian Liberation Front -- an ecumenical advocacy group supported by both Catholic and Protestant churches -- said that Christians "will not keep silent about this tragic, historic incident".

In a letter to President Musharraf, the World Council of Churches (WCC) -- a fellowship of 342 churches world-wide -- expressed concern "about the safety and security of the Christian minority in the present highly charged environment of religious intolerance" and supported the NCCP in calling for a judicial inquiry into yesterday's church attack.

The National Council of Churches in India (NCCI), condemning the massacre, also urged "steps to protect the minorities" in Pakistan. "We also affirm our solidarity with the National Council of Churches in Pakistan in this hour of crisis," the NCCI said in a statement on 29 October.

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