Bashar al-Assad’s troops capture Homs stronghold from Syrian rebels after month-long offensive, state TV claims


Originally posted on National Post | News:

AFP/Getty Images

AFP/Getty Images

DAMASCUS, Syria — Government troops captured a neighbourhood Monday in the embattled city of Homs that has been a rebel stronghold since the beginning of the Syrian uprising, dealing another blow to beleaguered opposition forces in the centre of the country, according to the state media.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights activist group, however, denied that regime forces had seized all of the district of Khaldiyeh, saying there was still scattered fighting in southern areas of the neighbourhood.

Syrian TV aired footage from the neighbourhood, showing troops roaming deserted streets and waving flags in front of shell-scarred buildings. Two opposition activists in the area who could normally be contacted via Skype were offline Monday.

Government troops launched a sweeping offensive to retake rebel-held areas of Homs, Syria’s third-largest city, a month ago. Even if small pockets of resistance remain, the fall of Khaldiyeh to regime troops…

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Christians in India Faced Three Attacks per Week in 2009


Over 150 assaults reported, many in southern part of country.

NEW DELHI, December 31 (CDN) — After unprecedented large-scale attacks on Christians in the previous two years, 2009 brought hardly any respite as the minority faith faced an average of more than three violent attacks a week.

There were at least 152 attacks on Christians in 2009, according to the “Partial List of Major Incidents of Anti-Christian Violence in India” released by the Evangelical Fellowship of India.

“The trend of attacks on the Christian community by rightwing Hindu groups goes unabated,” said Dr. Dominic Emmanuel, the spokesperson of the Delhi Catholic Archdiocese. “Overall, the Christian community still feels insecure.”

Emmanuel also noted that none of the states that have “anti-conversion” laws have repealed them. The north-central states of Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, Orissa in the east, Gujarat in the west and Himachal Pradesh in the north have anti-conversion laws, which Hindu hardliners routinely use to arrest Christians on spurious accusations of “forcible conversion.”

“If 2007 and 2008 went down in history as the most blood-soaked ones in the history of modern Christianity in India, 2009 surely rates as the year of frustrating confrontations with the law and tardy governance and on justice for the victims of communal violence,” said Dr. John Dayal, a Christian and human rights activist and member of the government’s National Integration Council.

Dayal referred to violence that erupted in Orissa’s Kandhamal district during the Christmas week in 2007, killing at least four Christians and burning 730 houses and 95 churches. The attacks were carried out to avenge an alleged attack on a Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council or VHP) leader, Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati.

Violence re-erupted in Kandhamal in August 2008 after the assassination of Saraswati by a Maoist group, as rightwing Hindu groups falsely blamed Christians for it. This time, the violence killed more than 100 people and resulted in the incineration of 4,640 houses, 252 churches and 13 educational institutions.

No Longer a Haven

A disturbing new trend emerged this year as southern India, which had long been considered a haven for Christians, recorded the highest incidence of anti-Christian violence. Of the total 152 incidents, 86 were reported from southern states, mainly Karnataka with 48, Andhra Pradesh with 29, Tamil Nadu with five and Kerala with four.

Northern and central states, seen as the stronghold of rightwing Hindu extremists, recorded 42 incidents of violence, half the number in the south.

There were 15 attacks in Madhya Pradesh state, 14 in neighboring Chhattisgarh, three each in Uttar Pradesh and the Himalayan states of Himachal Pradesh and Jammu and Kashmir, and one each in the national capital Delhi and neighboring Haryana state.

In the west, seven attacks were reported: six in Maharashtra and one in Gujarat. In the northeast, four attacks were reported: three in Assam and one in Manipur.

Karnataka recorded the highest number of violent incidents as the first-ever victory of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the state elections in 2007 emboldened rightwing Hindu extremist groups. Karnataka became the first southern state with a stand-alone BJP government in the history of India.

Anti-Christian violence in Andhra Pradesh rose to new heights after a Christian, Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy, became the chief minister of the state in May 2004. To target him politically, rightwing Hindu groups attacked Christians while accusing them of converting Hindus to Christianity. This year Reddy died on Sept. 2 in a helicopter crash.

The incidence of Christian persecution in the north and the central states declined apparently due to the BJP’s defeat in the April-May general elections and a growing realization among a section of the BJP leadership that violent incidents no longer please voters. But the hard-line section of the BJP and groups linked to the party, such as the VHP and its youth wing Bajrang Dal, carried on with their hardcore anti-Christian stand.

Impunity in Orissa

Orissa state in the east, which witnessed two massive spates of attacks on Christians in 2007 and 2008, saw only two recorded violent incidents this year.

The morale of Christians in Orissa, however, remained low as few assailants in the 2008 rampage were brought to justice.

“The courts in Kandhamal make a mockery of the judicial process, and the murderers lord it over the witnesses and victims while judges and law look on,” Dayal said. “The church remains helpless, its puny effort at giving strength to the witnesses falling far too short.”

Of 787 cases registered by Orissa police, 100 are being handled by two-fast track courts in Kandhamal. Around 35 cases have been heard, resulting in around 50 convictions and more than 190 acquittals.  Manoj Pradhan, a legislator for the BJP, has been exonerated “for lack of evidence” in six cases, most of them involving murder charges.

Dr. Sajan K. George, national president of the Global Council of Indian Christians, said the growing number of acquittals was producing a culture of impunity, “where those who commit crimes against Christian minority do not fear punishment by law.”

“As the elected representative of the Orissa state assembly [Pradhan] has been let off in murder cases,” George said. “People want to know what has happened to the long arms of justice.”

Dayal, who was in Kandhamal recently, said that of the more than 4,640 houses burned in 2008 violence, only 200 have a roof over the rebuilt walls as 2009 ends.

“And perhaps at the end of the next year, another 2,500, God willing, will have been rebuilt,” he said. “But around 2,000 houses will even then remain unfinished.”

Dayal added that more than 20,000 men, women and children of Kandhamal continue to live as refugees or homeless people in various cities, working at odd jobs and sometimes begging.

“Some girls have already been pushed into the evil of human trafficking,” he said.

Most people in Kandhamal remain without jobs, and the rehabilitation process, in which the church is participating, still is a long distance from covering all victims, Dayal said, adding, “The state government seems to have called it a day with the barest minimum done in this sector.”

Emmanuel of the Delhi Archdiocese said that since the BJP is not in power at the federal level, some of their front organizations such as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the VHP and the Bajrang Dal will harass Christians in order to remain in the news.

“Christianity teaches us to hope in God,” Emmanuel said. “We can only hope that 2010 will be a better year for Christians, but in practical terms it really does not appear that things would be any better as the ranks of rightwing Hindu fundamentalists keep their pressure.”

There are around 24 million Christians in India, or roughly 2.3 percent of the over 1.1 billion people.

Report from Compass Direct News 

Pakistani Christian on Run from Taliban Death Threat


Islamic extremist sermonizing leads to altercation at barbershop in South Waziristan.

LAHORE, Pakistan, November 27 (CDN) — A young Christian man is in hiding in Pakistan from Taliban militants who seek to kill him for “blasphemy” because he defended his faith.

In February Jehanzaib Asher, 22, was working in a barbershop his family jointly owns with his cousin in Wana, South Waziristan – a Taliban stronghold in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas in Pakistan’s northwest – when the Islamic militants showed up to try to convert him to Islam.

It was not the first time the Taliban’s Noor Hassan had delivered strident sermons to him and his relatives, and this time Asher decided not to listen silently. He defended Christianity by citing verses from the Bible, and Hassan and another Islamic militant viciously beat him – breaking his left leg and some ribs and leaving his left hand non-functional.

He told Compass that he only defended Christianity and did not comment on Islam.

“One can bear the death of one’s father or mother, but can we keep listening to insults of our religion?” Asher said.

Nearby Muslims helped him and two cousins ward off the attack. Soon the Taliban militants began spreading the word to local residents that Asher and his cousin Christopher Masih had blasphemed Muhammad, the prophet of Islam.

Before the Pakistani military’s recent offensive against the Taliban stronghold in South Waziristan, Asher said, his picture was posted at check-points in an attempt to help the Taliban and other Islamists identify and kill him.

Asher’s cousin, Zaib Masih, managed to get Asher and Christopher Masih (Zaib Masih’s brother) into a vehicle, and they fled the market area where their two barbershops are located. As barbers they were targeted for the Islamic sermonizing and attack due to the Taliban’s opposition to shaving of beards, he said.

Zaib Masih told Compass that Christopher Masih was also injured in the attack, though not as seriously as Asher. They took Asher to a military hospital, safe from the Taliban. But when military doctors asked how Asher became so badly injured, they mentioned only a “family fight” so as not to draw the ire of any Muslim soldiers who might attack them for the blasphemy allegations.

For months Asher remained at home; even neighbors were unaware of the fact that he was still in Wana, Zaib Masih said.

“We live in the army compound, but we still feared that the Taliban might tip off some one in the compound, and we might be attacked on the allegations of blasphemy,” he said.

He said that they had been born and brought up in Wana and knew many Taliban members, and with their help he approach a grand mufti to try to obtain a decree that Asher was innocent.

“I took along a lamb with me to present to the mufti in order to appease his anger, but he listened to no word and wanted to know Asher’s whereabouts,” Zaib Masih added.

Asher still walked with a limp, and the Taliban were determined to kill him, Zaib Masih said. His and Asher’s families own a house in Sialkot, and Zaib Masih said he planned to sneak him there.

Asher said the grand mufti was not present when the Taliban initially sought to kill him, and that therefore no fatwa was issued ordering his death.

“If that had happened, then I would have been killed for sure,” he said. “The Taliban were even killing the army personnel, so what capacity did we have to defend ourselves?”

Earlier this month, Asher told Compass, he disguised himself as a Muslim with a long beard and left Wana.

Initially he fled to Sialkot, Punjab Province. Soon he learned that in Wana news of his departure had spread, and that there was a rumor that three Taliban had been dispatched to Sialkot to hunt him down. Crestfallen, he fled to another, undisclosed city.

Asher told Compass that he had recovered from all injuries except for his knee, which remained swollen. He said he was receiving treatment for it at a hospital.

“Only God could have saved me from this calamity,” he said. “Otherwise, no one could save me from their hands.”

The cousins’ barbershops in Wana have been closed after the encounter with the Taliban. Zaib Masih said that two relatives have government jobs as janitors, and the two families are surviving on their meager salaries.

Since the closing of their barbershops, Zaib Masih said, the families have living hand-to-mouth – barely able to have two meals a day.

South Waziristan is the headquarters of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, the Taliban umbrella group fighting the government, and is a hub of Arab and Uzbek Islamic militants. In mid-October the Pakistani Army launched an offensive after the Taliban managed to take the army’s general headquarters in Rawalpindi.

Report from Compass Direct News 

WAR IS OVER IN SRI LANKA, CHRISTIANS ARE REACHING OUT


Sri Lanka’s civil war between the government and the Tamil Tigers rebel group is now over, and it is time to minister to the survivors, says Gospel for Asia President K.P. Yohannan, reports MNN.

“While the 30-year-long conflict has come to an end by the news of the Tamil Tigers’ surrender, in reality this is the beginning of pain and crisis for hundreds of thousands of people who are displaced,” Dr. Yohannan said. “There are 25,000 now in refugee camps, and the suffering is especially acute among the children and elderly.

“This is one of the greatest challenges and opportunities we have to minister to people in the name of Christ. We have more than 100 churches in Sri Lanka, and our people are engaged in doing whatever they can to help the suffering refugees. This is a drawn-out challenge that will be there for a long time to come.”

The bloody civil war entered its final stages earlier this year and ended with the government’s announcement Monday that it had killed Tamil leader Velupillai Prabhakaran and his son. A short time later, the handful of remaining Tamils surrendered.

The Tamils are a minority group on the island, and the Tigers were an armed militant group fighting for a separate homeland in northern Sri Lanka. The Indian state of Tamil Nadu is just across a narrow channel from the battle area.

Sri Lanka’s army chief, appearing on television news broadcasts, said that government troops claimed victory over the last Tamil stronghold, a tiny sliver of land on the northwest coast of the island.

With the end of the war, Sri Lanka is now faced with resettling thousands of refugees who fled their homes in the wake of the fighting. Many of the refugees are living in government camps that lack basic hygiene facilities. They do not have access to adequate food, water or shelter.

But physical discomfort is not the only thing they have suffered. Many lost loved ones or were permanently disfigured in the violent confrontations. The rebels were accused of using civilians as human shields, and the government is accused of inadvertently bombing a hospital in the designated safe zone.

The United Nations estimates that 70,000 civilians were killed in the fighting during the last 30 years. There is a concern that the number will increase.

“Our country is in huge suffering,” said Lal Vanderwall, GFA’s Sri Lanka country leader. “We are praying for God to intervene so that many more will not die in the aftermath of this surrender.”

Yohannan said there is a concern about the fate of the island’s Tamils in the wake of the surrender.

The hurt runs deep, says Yohannan, and “unless we preach the Gospel and somehow bring Christ into the picture, and the church moves very aggressively, cares for the suffering and the poor, and does the work of God, we may have more problems.”

“People are committing suicide out of despair,” Yohannan reported. “When they lose hope, many will just kill themselves. So there is a very real fear of increased suicides.”

Gospel for Asia-supported missionaries have been working in Sri Lanka for many years. Some are former rebel fighters, while others come from the majority Sinhalese population. Most of these missionaries now serve as pastors of Sri Lankan churches. The fact that Tamil and Sinhalese Christians work side-by-side has been a tremendous witness to the people.

Today these pastors, along with the workers at the Bridge of Hope children’s centers, are mobilizing to help war survivors. During the next few days they will be gathering food, clothing and other daily necessities to help the displaced with their immediate needs.

As the people return home, these pastors and other workers will continue helping them rebuild their lives in whatever ways are necessary. For some, that could mean ministering to families who are burying their dead. For others, it could be providing food and other household necessities. Others may need new homes if theirs were destroyed in the conflict.

Yohannan says many are hopeless. “When people are hurting and in despair, hopelessness sinks in, and that’s when the Gospel is presented and they cry out to God.”

With the end of the war, GFA-supported missionaries will also be praying for their country’s leaders as they plot a course for the future.

“I pray that somehow the international community will be concerned that the government of Sri Lanka will take care of its Tamil population,” Yohannan said. “This conflict started because of the abuse of the Tamil population, so I pray that the government will now take care of its Tamil people as well as the majority Sinhalese.”

Report from the Christian telegraph

PAKISTAN: CHRISTIANS PRESSED AS MILITARY BATTLES TALIBAN


Residents flee Swat Valley where fight rages with Islamist insurgents.

ISTANBUL, May 13 (Compass Direct News) – Pakistani Christians in Swat Valley are caught between the Taliban and Pakistan’s military as it assaults the stronghold where sharia (Islamic law) rules.

Nearly 15,000 troops have been deployed in the picturesque Swat Valley in Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and neighboring Afghanistan. Troops came after months of peace negotiations collapsed between the Taliban Islamist insurgents who have imposed sharia in the valley and the central government last month. Hundreds of thousands of Pakistanis have fled the war-ravaged area for fear of a full military assault.

On May 10 (Sunday) the army ordered residents to flee Swat Valley during a lull in fighting. Aid groups estimate that as many as 1.3 million could be displaced by the fighting, according to The Guardian.

Christians are particularly vulnerable in the mass exodus. Working as poor day laborers, they occupy the lowest rung of the social ladder and have little money for costly transport or to stock up on resources before fleeing.

“Christians are poor, and like in any conflict, the prices of transportation and commodities skyrocket,” said Ashar Dean, assistant director of communication of the Church of Pakistan Peshawar diocese. “Some had to go on foot to flee the valley.”

The Taliban had ratcheted up pressure on Christians, other religious minorities and liberal Muslims in Swat to live according to Islamic fundamentalist norms. They were forced to grow beards and don Islamic attire for fear of their safety in an attempt to blend in with Muslim residents of Swat.

Many Christians also fled for insufficient funds to pay the jizye, a poll tax under sharia paid by non-Muslims for protection if they decline to convert to Islam.

In February the Pakistani government ceded control of Swat valley to the Taliban, who imposed their version of sharia and established clerical rule over the legal system. But Christians had seen warning signs long before the formal sharia announcement. In the past year the Taliban burned or bombed more than 200 girls’ schools in Swat, including one that housed a Catholic church.

Religious minorities live in a precarious situation in the Muslim-dominated country. The legal system informally discriminates against non-Muslims, and in recent years Christian villages have been ransacked by Muslim mobs incited by dubious reports that a Quran had been desecrated.

The Taliban’s attempts to spread out from Swat into neighboring areas, however, have increased feelings of insecurity among the nation’s 3 million Christians.

“The threat of the Taliban is a hanging sword above the necks of Christians,” said Sohail Johnson, chief coordinator of Sharing Life Ministry Pakistan. “Christians could be in the situation where they would have to accept Islam or die.”

Swat Christians Flee

Approximately 40-60 Christian families lived in Swat as congregants at the Church of Pakistan. But since Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani on April 8 announced a military mission into Swat, nearly all have fled to nearby districts.

Most are in refugee housing in Mardan in the NWFP. They stay in a technical school owned by the Church of Pakistan, a congregation composed of Anglicans, Presbyterians, Methodists and Lutherans

The school dismissed its students for the school year early to make room for the refugees. Opening its doors to the displaced Christians was necessary due to government inaction toward religious minorities, said Yousaf Benjamin of the National Commission for Justice and Peace.

“The government is giving protection to Muslims, but the Christians are through waiting for their services,” he said.

Similar measures are being employed in hundreds of schools. To provide for the massive influx in refugees, the Pakistan government ended the school year early in districts near Swat and opened the schools to refugees for temporary housing. Teachers are also assisting in the humanitarian relief effort, Benjamin said.

Some Christians have complained of facing discrimination in refugee camps. Government relief workers forbade Christians, Hindus and Sikhs from setting up tents or eating with Muslim refugees, according to online news site Christian Today.

But ultimately Christians will not be able to return to Swat Valley unless the Taliban threat is completely removed, Christian relief groups said. Their possessions and property will otherwise always be under threat.

“Christians will face terrible persecution if the Taliban is not controlled by the government,” Johnson said. “They will easily attack churches, schools and other Christian institutions.”

Rehman Malik, the interior minister, said Pakistan’s military operation would continue until the last Taliban fighter had been ousted. Since April 8, government troops have killed an estimated 751 militants.

There are believed to be 5,000 Taliban militants in Swat Valley. The government hopes to minimize civilian casualties through precision air strikes and delivering emergency humanitarian aid.

Pakistan’s government has come under harsh national and international criticism for its negotiations with the Taliban and ceding control of Swat. They fear the Taliban could seize control of the nation’s nuclear weapons.

Report from Compass Direct News

HUMANITARIAN GROUPS WARN OF REFUGEE CRISIS LOOMING IN PAKISTAN


As Pakistan continues its press on the Taliban, thousands are fleeing the Swat Valley. A brief lull in the violence over the weekend saw many people loading their families and possessions into anything that moved in order to leave the area, reports MNN.

A “peace” pact with the Taliban broke down 11 days ago when security forces began an assault to push the militants back into their territory. The rebels, well-established in their stronghold, had begun to encroach upon Islamabad in a blatant grab for land and power.

The result when the two forces met was volatile. The government is now preparing for up to 500,000 internal refugees, the largest displacement crisis in Pakistan’s history.

Even when the refugees arrive at refugee camps, it’s not a guarantee of safety or comfort. Jacob Kramer is with the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee. He says,”These camps are now full. New places will have to be made in order to help them and have an opportunity to distribute the most essential things to maintain life.”

It’s hot, overcrowded, and there are inadequate sanitation facilities as well as a lack of electricity. Add to that: diseases and a lack of medical help, and the situation deteriorates quickly. Kramer says their teams are mobilizing. “We’ve been in contact with our partners, and they are trying to get a more detailed picture so that we can start with food and non-food responses to help the people.”

CRWRC reaches out in God’s name to people who are struggling with poverty, hunger, disaster, and injustice to help them find lasting ways to improve their lives.

The teams are the hands and feet of Christ in this horrific situation. Kramer urges people to “pray for the people, that God’s grace may abide with them and peace may return as soon as possible. This is a population which has been tormented from so many sides, so often, that they are highly-affected by trauma.”

Report from the Christian Telegraph

IRAQ: GUNMEN KILL CHRISTIANS IN KIRKUK


Clergy believe attacks were religiously motivated.

ISTANBUL, April 28 (Compass Direct News) – Gunmen in Iraq shot five Chaldean Catholic Christians in their Kirkuk homes on Sunday (April 26) in two separate attacks, killing three and injuring two.

Cousins Suzan Latif David and Muna Banna David were killed at 10 p.m. in a suburb of the northern Iraqi city. Within a few minutes, Yousif Shaba and his sons Thamir and Basil were also shot in the same area, leaving the 17-year-old Basil dead. Yousif Shaba and Thamir were in critical condition.

Police have not stated if the two attacks were related, but they confirmed the arrest of nine men linked with the assault, a source told Compass. One of them is from the former insurgent stronghold of Ramadi and has suspected links to Al Qaeda.

Chaldean Catholic Archbishop of Kirkuk Louis Sako said the attacks aimed to split the community. Yesterday he presided over the murder victims’ funeral, which the city police chief and provincial governor also attended.

“The main object of these crimes is to create chaos and promote strife and division among the people of Kirkuk,” Sako said, according to Reuters. “I call on Christians not to be jarred by these crimes and stay in Kirkuk. We are sons of this city.”

Kirkuk Province Gov. Abdul Rahman Mustafa echoed the archbishop’s comments, calling on Kirkuk’s citizens to stand united against the terrorists.

Violence has struck the nation’s Christian community particularly hard since the Iraq war began in 2003. Left mostly defenseless in sectarian violence, Christians have been targeted for kidnapping under the assumption that they can garner a large ransom.

Chaldean Christians have been hardest hit in the northern city of Mosul, where thousands of families have fled since an uptick in violence started last October. Some locals believe Kurdish groups are trying to intimidate them into leaving so they can incorporate the city into the semi-autonomous Kurdish region.

But Kirkuk has largely avoided the sectarian bloodshed of the region. For this reason clergy believe the five Christians were targeted purely for their religion.

“They were peaceful Christian families, not involved in any political affiliation or such activities,” said Father Emanuel Youkhana of Christian Aid Program Nohadra Iraq, a local humanitarian organization. “What were they involved in that they be targeted in such a brutal way?

He added that most locals believe the two attacks were coordinated in order to terrorize Christians, as they occurred only a few minutes apart from each other.

“It was not just an accident that the two attacks happened in the same city on the same day at the same time,” he said.

The oil-rich city of Kirkuk has been caught in a tug-of-war between its Arab and Kurdish residents. Arabs were resettled there during Saddam Hussein’s regime, and Kurds have been moving back to reclaim the homes from which they were forcibly expelled.

But other groups have criticized Kurds for their massive immigration, charging that it is a means to annex the city – and its oil wealth – into the Kurdish region. Kirkuk has a small population of native Christians, with many moving here in recent decades to work in the oil industry. The Christian population is approximately 7,000.

Local police and officials have blamed Al Qaeda for the murders. Fr. Youkhana said there has been no evidence of Al Qaeda involvement, but that “for sure” it was a fundamentalist Islamic terrorist attack. He said security forces are often quick to blame foreign-based Al Qaeda rather than call attention to a violent, homegrown organization.

An Eastern rite denomination in communion with Rome, the Chaldean Catholic Church is Iraq’s largest Christian community.  

Report from Compass Direct News

PAKISTAN: TALIBAN-INSPIRED ATTACKS HIT CHRISTIANS


Armed militants fire into crowd, seriously injuring three; jizye tax imposed in Orakzai.

ISTANBUL, April 27 (Compass Direct News) – As Taliban control hits pockets of Pakistan and threatens the nation’s stability, Christians worry their province could be the next to fall under Islamic law.

Violence on Tuesday night and Wednesday (April 21-22) near the port city of Karachi – some 1,000 kilometers (nearly 700 miles) from the Swat Valley, where the government officially allowed the Taliban to establish Islamic law this month – heightened fears. Christians in Taiser town, near Karachi, noticed on the walls of their church graffiti that read, “Long Live the Taliban” and calls for Christians to either convert to Islam or pay the jizye, a poll tax under sharia (Islamic law) paid by non-Muslims for protection if they decline to convert.

As members of the congregation erased the graffiti, armed men intervened to stop them. Soon 30-40 others arrived as support and began to fire indiscriminately at the crowd, leaving several injured. Among those seriously injured were three Christians, including a child, according to a report by advocacy group Minorities Concern of Pakistan: Emrah Masih, 35, Qudoos Masih, 30, and Irfan Masih, 11. A Pashtun named Rozi Khan was also among the injured.

Policemen and military forces arrested seven suspects at the scene and recovered an arms cache of semi-automatic pistols and a Kalashnikov assault rifle.

The Taliban is an insurgent movement of primarily Pashtun Islamists ousted from power in Afghanistan in 2001. Pakistani media portrayed the Karachi violence as a sectarian clash between Christians and Pashtuns that escalated into a gunfire exchange and that Christians committed arson attacks. The Daily Times claimed that the Christians protested the graffiti by setting ablaze some shops, including roadside stalls and pushcarts.

But a legal advocacy worker told Compass that police scattered the Christians when they began their protests and stood by as a Taliban-assembled mob attacked them.

“The Christians do not have guns, they do not have weapons, but only a little bit of property and the few things in their houses,” said Sohail Johnson, chief coordinator of Sharing Life Ministry Pakistan. “They are poor and have no courage to fight them. How can Christians, who lived like animals here, stand against them?”

Johnson said that local Christians, terrified over recent Talibanization campaigns, may not pursue legal action against the arrested men, although Asia News reported that Qudoos Masih filed an initial report at the Sarjani town police station. The Christians fear inciting violence by taking a stand against elements connected with the Taliban, Johnson said.

Eyewitnesses to the attacks against Christians in Karachi said they were religiously motivated. A representative of the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM) regional party told Compass that after firing on the crowd, the Taliban went through Christian houses, ransacked them and burned one down. He said they also burned Bibles and beat women on the street. Reports of two execution-style killings of Christians could not be verified.

Karachi police and administration reportedly claimed that the Karachi attack came not from the Taliban but from Pashtuns who resettled in the area from the North West Frontier Province (NWFP). The MQM, however, has long suspected Taliban presence in Karachi.

 

Expanded Campaign of Violence

Local officials are worried that the Taliban is making inroads into Karachi, the financial center of Pakistan, in the same way it did within the Swat Valley in the NWFP.

In mid-February Pakistan’s fertile Swat Valley turned into a Taliban stronghold ruled by sharia under a “peace agreement,” but instead of honoring the accord with an end to bombings and other violence, the Islamic militants have expanded their campaign to outlying areas and other parts of the country. Of the 500 Christians remaining in Swat Valley when sharia was initially established in February, many have migrated to other provinces while those who stayed live in fear of a rise in violence against non-Muslims.

In the Federally Administered Tribal Area adjacent to the NWFP, the Taliban this month demanded a jizye payment of 50 million rupees (US$625,000) from Sikhs living in Orakzai Agency. Those who did not flee paid a combined total of 2 million rupees (US$25,000), and Christians worry they could be next. Relegating non-Muslims to dhimmi status – the second-class state of those subject to an Islamic administration and its jizye tax in exchange for protection – is part of the writings of the founder of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (Assembly of Islamic Clergy), one of Pakistan’s main Islamic parties with ties to the Taliban in Afghanistan and similar parties in Bangladesh and Egypt.

Last week the Taliban effectively took control of Buner district, just 60 miles from the capital of Islamabad, and it has begun battling government soldiers in Malakland Agency.

Non-Muslims make up 3 percent of the population in the Muslim-majority nation of 176 million. They are frequently marginalized, particularly in the sharia-influenced justice system that gives precedence to Muslims. But they fear Taliban infiltration will accelerate their marginalization in a stealth manner, as they cannot tell the difference between a Taliban fighter and a community member.

“We cannot identify who is a Taliban fighter because there are an uncountable number of people who have a beard and wear a turban,” Johnson said. “We cannot recognize who belongs to the Taliban because they penetrate every corner of Pakistan.”

The MQM official in Karachi said many of the Christians in the area are poor and illiterate. They are on the lower rungs of the social ladder and have nobody to protect their interests except for the church.

“Nobody is going to help them,” he said. “The church can help them get education, but they are not also able to give them [security] help.”

His statements were backed by MQM leader Altaf Hussein, who called on Pakistan’s Interior Ministry to take emergency preventative measures to ensure the safety of minorities against the “rising activities of armed lawless elements,” according to The News International.

A local teacher said that during the looting police only stood by, making no effort to stop the Taliban as they ransacked Christian houses.

“Rather than stopping them, they allowed them to burn the houses, [harass] the Christian women and burn Bibles,” he said.

Although Pakistani politicians and security forces have said openly in recent weeks that the Taliban was closing in on Islamabad and could trigger a government collapse, they claimed the pro-Taliban slogans in Karachi were scrawled not by the Taliban but conspirators wanting to incite violence.

Maulana Fazlur Rehman, an Islamist party leader, said talk of the Talibanization of Karachi was merely a ruse to allow the United States to invade Pakistan as it had done to Afghanistan.

“Those raising this slogan are trying to create another Osama for America in this part of the world,” he said, according to The News International.

The Karachi attacks were part of escalating violence throughout the country. The government informed the National Assembly on April 20 that 1,400 people had been killed in terrorist attacks in the last 15 months.

Report from Compass Direct News

PAKISTAN: CHRISTIANS BRACE FOR SHARIA IN SWAT VALLEY


Accepting Islamic law in exchange for peace leaves many uncertain, fearful.

ISTANBUL, March 27 (Compass Direct News) – Just over a month since Pakistan’s fertile Swat Valley turned into a Taliban stronghold where sharia (Islamic law) rules, the fate of the remaining Christians in the area is uncertain.

Last month, in an effort to end a bloody two-year battle, the Islamabad administration struck a deal with Taliban forces surrendering all governance of Swat Valley in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP). Sources told Compass that after the violence that has killed and displaced hundreds, an estimated 500 Christians remain in the area. Traditionally these have been low-skilled workers, but younger, more educated Christians work as nurses, teachers and in various other professions.

The sole Church of Pakistan congregation in Swat, consisting of 40 families, has been renting space for nearly 100 years. The government has never given them permission to buy land in order to build a church building.

An associate pastor of the church in central Swat told Yousaf Benjamin of the National Commission for Justice and Peace that with the bombing of girls schools at the end of last year, all Christian families migrated to nearby districts. After the peace deal and with guarded hope for normalcy and continued education for their children, most of the families have returned to their homes but are reluctant to attend church.

The associate pastor, who requested anonymity, today told sources that “people don’t come to the church as they used to come before.” He said that although the Taliban has made promises of peace, the Christian community has yet to believe the Muslim extremists will hold to them.

“The people don’t rely on Taliban assurances,” said Benjamin.

Last week the associate pastor met with the third in command of the main Taliban militant umbrella group in Pakistan, Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, Kari Abdullah, and requested land in order to build a church. Abdullah reportedly agreed, saying that Islam is a religion of peace and equality, and that his group intended to provide equal opportunities to the religious communities of Swat.

The Catholic Church in Swat is located in a school compound that was bombed late last year. Run by nuns and operated under the Catholic Church Peshawar Diocese, the church has been closed for the last two years since insurgents have been fighting government led forces, source said.

Parliamentarian Shahbaz Bhatti said Christians and the few Hindus in Swat valley have lived under terror and harassment by the Taliban since insurgents began efforts to seize control of the region. He met with a delegation of Christians from Swat last month who said they were concerned about their future, but Bhatti said only time will tell how the changes will affect Christians.

“The Christian delegation told me that they favor the peace pact if indeed it can bring peace, stability and security to the people living there,” he said. “But they also shared their concern that if there is enforcement of sharia, what will be their future? But we will see how it will be implemented.”

Although there have been no direct threats against Christians since the establishment of the peace accord, some advocates fear that it may only be a matter of time.

“These days, there are no reports of persecution in Swat,” Lahore-based reporter Felix Qaiser of Asia News told Compass by phone, noting the previous two years of threatening letters, kidnappings and aggression against Christians by Islamic extremists. “But even though since the implementation of sharia there have been no such reports, we are expecting them. We’re expecting this because other faiths won’t be tolerated.”

Qaiser also expressed concern about the treatment of women.

“They won’t be allowed to move freely and without veils,” he said. “And we’re very much concerned about their education there.”

In the past year, more than 200 girls schools in Swat were reported to have been burned down or bombed by Islamic extremists.

Remaining girls schools were closed down in January but have been re-opened since the peace agreement in mid-February. Girls under the age of 13 are allowed to attend.

Since the deal was struck, seven new sharia judges have been installed, and earlier this month lawyers were trained in the nuances of Islamic law. Those not trained are not permitted to exercise their profession. As of this week, Non-Governmental Organizations are no longer permitted in the area and vaccinations have been banned.

“These are the first fruits of Islamic law, and we’re expecting worse things – Islamic punishment such as cutting off hands, because no one can dictate to them,” Qaiser said. Everything is according to their will and their own interpretation of Islamic law.”

 

Launch Point for Taliban

Analysts and sources on the ground have expressed skepticism in the peace deal brokered by pro-Taliban religious leader Maulana Sufi Muhammad, who is also the leader of Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi. The insurgent, who has long fought for implementation of sharia in the region, has also fought alongside the Taliban against U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

He was imprisoned and released under a peace deal in April 2008 in an effort to restore normalcy in the Swat Valley. Taliban militants in the Swat area are under the leadership of his son-in-law, Maulana Fazlullah.

The agreement to implement sharia triggered alarm around the world that militants will be emboldened in the northwest of Pakistan, a hotbed for Taliban and Al-Qaeda extremists fighting Western forces in Afghanistan and bent on overthrowing its government.

Joe Grieboski of the Institute on Religion and Public Policy said the peace deal makes Talibanization guaranteed by law, rendering it impossible to return to a liberal democracy or any guarantee of fundamental rights.

“The government in essence ceded the region to the Taliban,” said Grieboski. “Clerical rule over the region will fulfill the desires of the extremists, and we’ll see the region become a copy of what Afghanistan looked like under Taliban rule.”

This can only mean, he added, that the Taliban will have more power to promulgate their ideology and power even as the Pakistani administration continues to weaken.

“Unfortunately, this also creates a safe launching off point for Taliban forces to advance politically, militarily and ideologically into other areas of the country,” said Grieboski. “The peace deal further demonstrates the impotence of [Asif Ali] Zardari as president.”

Grieboski said the peace deal further demonstrates that Pakistani elites – and President Zardari in particular – are less concerned about fundamental rights, freedom and democracy than about establishing a false sense of security in the country.

“This peace deal will not last, as the extremists will demand more and more, and Zardari and the government have placed themselves in a weakened position and will once again have to give in,” said Grieboski.

Sohail Johnson, chief coordinator of advocacy group Sharing Life Ministry Pakistan, said he fears that militants in Swat will now be able to freely create training centers and continue to attack the rest of Pakistan.

“They will become stronger, and this will be the greatest threat for Christians living in Pakistan,” said Johnson.

Thus far the government has not completely bowed to Taliban demands for establishment of full sharia courts, and it is feared that the insurgents may re-launch violent attacks on civilians until they have full judicial control.

“The question of the mode of implementation has not yet been decided, because the Taliban want their own qazis [sharia judges] and that the government appointed ones should quit,” said lawyer Khalid Mahmood, who practices in the NWFP.

Mahmood called the judiciary system in Swat “collapsed” and echoed the fear that violence would spread in the rest of the country.

“They will certainly attack on the neighboring districts,” he said.

Earlier today, close to the Swat Valley in Khyber, a suicide bomber demolished a mosque in Jamrud, killing at least 48 people and injuring more than 150 others during Friday prayers. Pakistani security officials reportedly said they suspected the attack was retaliation for attempts to get NATO supplies into Afghanistan to use against Taliban fighters and other Islamist militants.

Report from Compass Direct News