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


Recent Incidents of Persecution

Maharashtra, January 30 (Compass Direct News) – Hindu extremists on Jan. 26 disrupted a baptism and thrashed believers at Gangapur Dam, Nashik district. The Times of India reported that as members of the Navjivan Fellowship Church were conducting a baptism ceremony at the dam, a group of 10 to 12 men armed with cricket stumps, iron rods and sticks arrived and beat those present, including women and children. They also damaged the car of one Christian. Winston Daniel, whose head was injured during the assault, told the national daily that the attack was so meticulously planned that the group left behind no clues to ascertain their identity. The Hindustan Times reported that Sangeeta Paulat, who also was injured, said the assailants shouted, “Jai Shri Ram [hail to Lord Ram]” while beating them. Suresh Patil suffered a head injury, and Himmat Wagh received hospital treatment for a fractured hand. Sanjay Pandit suffered a broken leg and was recovering at Nashik General (Civil) Hospital. A complaint was filed with Nashik Taluk police, and a case of rioting was registered against the unidentified men.


Andhra Pradesh – Hindu extremists from the Hindu extremist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh on Jan. 26 vandalized and attacked the nuns at St. Mary School in Kadiri. The Christian Legal Association (CLA) reported that a mob of about 12 extremists led by Vishnuvardhan Reddy barged into the school premises accusing authorities of not hoisting the flag on India’s Republic day. The extremists destroyed furniture, window panes and attacked the sisters, and area pastors reported the incident to police. A deputy superintendent of police identified only as Sainad told Compass that school officials and the attackers reached a compromise. The CLA reported that the school principal said the students had not come to school as there was a solar eclipse, but that the flag had been hoisted inside the building.


Madhya Pradesh – Hindu extremists accused a pastor of “harming religious sentiments” in Sanjay Koyla Nagar, Anooppur district, according to the Christian Legal Association. On Jan. 18 police went to the house of pastor Paulose Venkatarao of an area Pentecostal church around midnight on a complaint filed by Hindutva (Hindu nationalist) extremists accusing the pastor of selling a book, “Dharam Nirpeksh Evam Hindutva,” which they said harmed the sentiments of the Hindus. The Evangelical Fellowship of India reported that police told the pastor to go to the police station at 1 a.m., following a three-day convention the church had organized on Jan. 16-18, attended by a team from Bible College of Nagaland and pastors from abroad. At the police station, officers reprimanded the pastor; he gave a statement saying he had no idea who was selling books at the convention. Police officials told Compass that the pastor was called to the station for his own security as the extremists were creating a disturbance. No case was registered against the pastor.


Chhattisgarh – On Jan. 18 about 1,000 Hindu extremists gathered in anti-Christian protest in Palnar, Dendewada. The Evangelical Fellowship of India reported that the extremists shouted anti-Christian slogans, asserting that they wanted to wipe out all Christians and their activities in the area. The Hindu extremists reportedly staged the protest in response to Christians who were arrested on Jan. 5 on charges of defiling an area Hindu temple. After several calls by Christian leaders, police came to the area and dispersed the crowd.


Andhra Pradesh – Suspected Hindu extremists on Jan. 16 attacked a pastor in Gunpula, Karimnagar district. The Global Council of Indian Christians reported that six persons with their faces masked barged into the house of pastor Yakobu Jacob and began assaulting him. They shaved his head and burned his house with all his belongings. The intolerant Hindus also shouted that there should not be any Christian pastor in the village. The pastor filed a police complaint, and officers at Potkapalli police station registered a case against the extremists. Sub-Inspector D. Pratab told Compass that a police investigation was continuing.


KarnatakaHindutva (Hindu nationalist) extremists on Jan. 11 forcibly entered the home of Christian converts in Amrthmahal Kavalu hamlet, near Tiptur town in Tumkur district. They verbally abused the four Christians there, burned their Bibles and forced them to the Honnavalli police station, according to the Global Council of Indian Christians. Identified only as Shankarappa and his wife Leelamama, and Shivappa and his wife Manjamma, the two brothers and their wives are the only Christians resident in the village. They worship at Calvary Gospel Centre in Tiptur town. The church’s pastor, Joy Jacob, told Compass that at around 10:30 p.m. nine local Hindu extremists barged into the house using foul language, falsely accused the Christians of forcible conversions and tore up and burned two Bibles. They threatened to burn down the Christians’ house if they continued to worship at the Calvary Gospel Centre. Police arrived and took the Christians to the police station as the extremists shouted Hindu chants along the way. On Jan. 12 about 9 a.m., Jacob went to the police station to register a complaint but officers refused to accept it. They instead arranged a compromise agreement, with the Christians forgiving the assailants.


Karnataka – Police on Jan. 9 arrested pastor Iswar Albannavar of the Throne of Grace Ministry in Gangavadi slum, Belgaum for forcible conversion, but when the accusations proved false they were held for promoting religious enmity. The Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC) reported that Albannavar and his wife Renuka were conducting their regular weekly prayer meeting in their home for about 25 Christians, mostly recovering alcoholics, when police officials from Mala Maruthi police station stormed into the house. On the basis of a complaint filed by Hanmant Gargoti, officers falsely charged the pastor with forcible conversion and confiscated Bibles and hymn books, GCIC said. Police took the pastor and another Christian, Raju Kolkar, to the police station for questioning, after which Albannavar and Kolkar were sent to Belgaum Central Jail. An investigating officer identified only as Channakeshava told the Christian Legal Association that the two Christians were charged with promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion.


Karnataka – Four suspected Hindu extremists on motorbikes beat teacher James Victor Menezes, 52, a teacher at St. Legory’s School in Merlapadavu village near Mangalore on Jan. 7, reported the Daijiworld Media Network. Father Charles Menezes of the school told Compass that he strongly suspected the hand of Hindu extremists in the attack. On Jan. 2 the Catholic school had distributed Bibles; officials had announced that the Bibles were intended only for Christians, but a few others also picked up copies. The next day, protestors appeared in front of the school from Hindu groups, including the Srirama Sene (Army of Lord Ram). “The protestors falsely accused the schoolteachers of distributing Bibles to Hindus,” Fr. Meneze said. The beaten school teacher said he filed a complaint with the Kankanady police station, reportedly informing police that he would be able to identify the attackers, as they had also taken part in the protest. At press time no arrests had been made.


Chhattisgarh – Police on Jan. 5 arrested 10 Christians in Dantewada for allegedly defiling a Hindu temple. The Evangelical Fellowship of India reported that on Christmas Day around 40 Christians from the Bastar for Christ (BFC) house church in Palnar village, Dantewada had gone to Phulpad for a picnic and had inadvertently left behind a few paper plates and some food. Unidentified mischief-makers gathered up the leftovers and piled them at a small Hindu temple nearby, then took photographs of the supposed defilement. Local sources told Compass that on Dec. 28 and Jan. 4, area Hindu extremists disrupted a prayer service at the BFC house church, and on Jan. 5 police from Kua Kunda arrested associate pastor Shankar Sona and nine other Christians based on a police complaint filed by a Hindu extremist using the photograph as evidence. Police charged the Christians with damaging or defiling a place of worship, and they were all released on bail the same day.


Madhya Pradesh – Police on Jan. 5 arrested Christians in Kushalpura village, near Rajgarh in Dhar district after Hindu extremists attacked them. Dr. Sajan K. George of the Global Council of Indian Christians, said that pastor Kantilal Bhuria of Philadelphia Church was conducting a house-blessing service at the home of Badar Baria when nearly 10 members of the Hindu extremist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and Vishwa Hindu Parishad stormed into the house, assaulted the Christians and falsely accused the pastor of forcible conversion. The extremists phoned police, and as is customary in India officers jailed the victims of the Hindu extremist aggression. Pastor Bhuria and Baria were taken to the Sardarpur police station. Investigating officer Upendra Khare informed the Christian Legal Association that the Christians were arrested for injuring or defiling a place of worship with intent to insult religion. At press time the Christians were still in jail.


Karnataka – Airport police in Bangalore on Jan. 4 arrested three Christians for trying to fraudulently convert residents of Murugeshpalya and for disparaging Hindu gods, the Times of India reported. Police arrested Rama Reddy, 26, Mike Barabas, 35, and his wife Asmira Barabas based on a complaint by Prabhod Kumar Das that they were involved in “denigration of Hindu gods.” The complaint also stated that the three persons promised him money and a job if he agreed to convert. The newspaper reported that the three visited Das’ house for one week and persuaded him to change his religion. When the three went to Das’ house on Jan. 4, he went out and called people from the area who took hold of the Christians and handed them over to airport police. Officials seized books, handouts and other evangelistic materials from the accused. Airport police officials told Compass that the three Christians were in jail and have been charged with trespassing, hurting religious sentiments and promoting enmity between different religious groups.


Karnataka – Police on Jan. 4 arrested a pastor on a false complaint of forcible conversion by Hindu extremists in Kanakapura Taluk, Ramnagar district. The Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC) reported that nearly 25 extremists belonging to the Hindu extremist Bajrang Dal stormed the worship service of the India Christian Revival Mission, verbally abused the congregation and chased them from the building. The extremists repeatedly slapped and kicked the pastor, identified only as Paul, and his son Barnabas. The intolerant Hindus dragged them both outside and took them to the Kanakapura police station, where they filed the false complaint of forcible conversion against the pastor. A GCIC representative told Compass that police detained the Christians at the station until about 7:30 p.m., when GCIC intervention resulted in a compromise between the pastor and the assailants. Having forgiven them, the pastor declined to press charges, and police gave assurances that adequate protection would be extended to the church in Kanakapura.


Karnataka – Hindu extremists on Jan. 1 burned a house church of the Resurrected God’s Ministry in Malai Bennur, Davangere district. The Christian Legal Association reported that the extremists burned the church in the early morning hours and threatened a pastor identified only as Gangadhar that they would burn his family alive if he took the matter to authorities. The Deccan Herald News Service reported that one section of the church built with areca leaves was gutted in the fire, while the other side of the church was partially burned. This incident was reportedly the second attack on the church, with the earlier incident taking place on Nov. 11, 2007. Superintendent of Police Sandip Patil told Compass that one person had been arrested under Section 436 of the Indian Penal Code for intent to destroy a house with fire or explosives.  

Report from Compass Direct News


A blaze swallowed Gov. Sarah Palin’s evangelical Christian church on Friday and caused severe damage that fire officials say was likely the work of arsonists, reports Kathleen Gilbert,

The damage to the 2 1/2-year-old Wasilla Bible Church building is estimated at $1 million. Five women, and possibly a couple of children, were inside the church when the flames erupted, but escaped with no injuries.

Palin’s spokesman, Bill McAllister, said that Palin stopped by the church the following day to apologize in case the fire was connected to the “undeserved negative attention” the church has received since her unsuccessful run for the vice presidency. Palin was not present when the fire started, and did not attend Sunday services temporarily held at a local middle school, as she was on state business in Juneau.

Fire Chief James Steele told the Associated Press that the blaze is being investigated as a case of arson. He said investigators had no leads to discern whether the arsonist had a political motivation.

“Whatever the motives of the arsonist, the governor has faith in the scriptural passage that what was intended for evil will in some way be used for good,” McAllister said.

John Doak, associate pastor at Wasilla Bible Church, expressed the communion of faith that united churchgoers after the devastating blaze. “The definition of the church is the body of Christ, made up of God’s people,” said Doak after the Sunday service at Wasilla Middle School, attended by about 1,200 people. “The church is still there. We are the church.”

During Sarah Palin’s VP run on the Republican presidential ticket with John McCain, her home church came under harsh scrutiny from media analysts who found fault with the church’s teachings. In particular, homosexualists were outraged when it was discovered that the church advertised a Focus on the Family conference inviting homosexuals to overcome their same-sex attraction.

The Bible Church also made headlines for having hosted Jews for Jesus leader David Brickner. Political commentators warned Palin that the church’s decision to host Brickner would alienate her from the Jewish community, as Brickner’s organization has been criticized for “targeting Jews for conversion with subterfuge and deception.”

Report from the Christian Telegraph