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Pakistani Christians Demand More Action to Bring Church Killers to Justice

More than a month after an attack on a Christian church left 16 people dead, Pakistan's government still hasn't solved the killings, according to church leaders here.

"Government officials just keep saying they are working on it, yet no one has been arrested as far as we know. We think they know who did it, and announcing an arrest would be a big step forward," Victor Azariah, the general secretary of the National Council of Churches of Pakistan, told ENI.

Unidentified gunmen attacked a church in Bahawalpur on 28 October. Azariah said he had information that the assassins were members of Sipah-e-Sahaba, the "Soldiers of Islam," one of several Islamic extremist groups here that have been irritated by Pakistan's support for the US military intervention in neighbouring Afghanistan.

Pakistan's Christian community, accounting for less than 2 per cent of the population, is often associated with the West.

"They say America is Christian, and so we are identified with the United States whether we want to be or not," said Cecil Williams, bishop of the Peshawar diocese of the Church of Pakistan, a denomination that in 1970 united Lutherans, Methodists, Anglicans, and the Church of Scotland.

The massacre in Bahawalpur took place in a Catholic church, but Catholics shared the building with a congregation of the Church of Pakistan. On the Sunday of the attack, the Catholic and Protestant congregations had switched their times of worship. The Protestants were the ones attacked. Many suspect that the killers' intended target was the local Catholic priest, a US citizen, but weren't aware of the switch in services.

Azariah said the government has so far only carried out a police investigation of the case. However, church leaders are not aware that this investigation has produced any results and are demanding a more thorough inquiry led by a judge.

He said the Christian community here "has not publicly protested the killing, as we want to give the government a free hand to investigate".

Most church buildings in Pakistan have police guards since the massacre.

After ending his country's support for the Taliban and aligning his country with the US and other western countries fighting in neighbouring Afghanistan, President Pervez Musharraf has cracked down on extremist religious parties, including Sipah-e-Sahaba.

Dozens of leaders of religious parties have been detained by the government.

Musharraf is reportedly considering closing scores of madrassas, the schools where young male Afghan refugees, many orphaned and growing up without women in their lives, were offered free education, but emerged as committed militants of the fundamentalist parties. Many of the Taliban's

leaders were educated in madrassas around Peshawar.

Many poor Pakistani youth were also educated in the madrassas, and thousands crossed the border in recent weeks to join the Taliban in fighting against the US. However, the Taliban's declining fortunes on the battlefield have meant the return to Pakistan of many of those militants.

"The return of the fanatics is making life more difficult for us, but if the government remains strict about them then it can control them," Williams told ENI.

In the wake of the massacre, Williams said Pakistani church leaders had received letters of condolence and solidarity from Christians around the world.

"Yet all the messages aren't going to help the survivors," Williams complained.

He noted that church organisations were spending money to help Afghan refugees in Pakistan. "If we're taking care of the refugees we should also take care of our own brethren, the Christians."

According to Sarophina Parvez, a lay activist in the Church of Pakistan in Peshawar who is related to 13 of the people killed at Bahawalpur, local congregations here received written threats following the killings. She said they took the notes to the police, who spoke to the local Muslim cleric they believed responsible. The threats stopped, she said, but fear lingered.

"Some of the congregations wanted us to get Kalashnikovs (assault rifles), but what are we going to do with Kalashnikovs? And, besides, it is written in the Gospels that we will suffer," Parvez told ENI.

She said problems between Muslim groups are even more pronounced than tensions between Muslims and Christians. "We have a few police officers who come to protect us from any trouble, but there's a Shiite mosque down the street which has to have a large contingent of police and soldiers in order to protect the Shiites from the Sunni Muslims, who are the majority," Parvez said. --ENI

Posted December 7, 2001 on Trinity News

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