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


By Elizabeth Kendal

Religious Liberty Prayer Bulletin

Special to ASSIST News Service

The Margala Hills are all that lie between al-Qaeda-Taliban jihadists and their goal: nuclear-armed Islamabad. While most popular media reports give the impression that this crisis has only recently emerged, this is far from the case. The reality must be absorbed and lessons must be learned.

In 2003, as part of their ‘War on Terror’ alliance, America and Pakistan agreed that the Pakistani Army be given the job of eliminating al-Qaeda and Taliban elements in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Agencies (FATA) of North West Frontier Province (NWFP). However, a high death toll — including the loss of possibly 3000 soldiers — weakened both Army moral and public resolve, creating domestic political problems for then-president General Musharraf.

In pursuit of political gain, Musharraf brokered ‘land-for-peace’ deals with the al-Qaeda-Taliban alliance. In February 2005 South Waziristan was ceded, followed by North Waziristan in September 2006. With this ‘peace’, the military withdrew and jihadists were released from prison with compensation on a mere pledge not to engage in terrorism. If there were a turning point in the ‘War on Terror’, this unconditional surrender of Waziristan was surely it, for the power of the al-Qaeda-Taliban alliance has grown in both Afghanistan and Pakistan ever since.

The jihadists were never going to be pacified so long as their goal — the total Islamisation and Talibanisation of fortress Afghanistan and nuclear-armed Pakistan — remained unchanged and unrealised. The ‘Islamic Republic of Waziristan’ simply became a terrorist sanctuary and launching pad for further advances. Within months several more tribal areas had fallen under Taliban control. (‘Land-for-peace’ deals with agenda-driven fundamentalist Islamists and jihadists secure incremental Islamist advance, not peace.)

In July 2007 the government’s assault on the Islamists of the Lal Masjid (the Red Mosque in the centre of Islamabad) left some 100 Islamists dead. (The Islamists say thousands died, including children.) Consequently in September 2007 Al-Qaeda declared jihad against the government of Pakistan and the war was on in earnest. This war pits a determined al-Qaeda-Taliban alliance (with numerous high-level sympathisers) against an unstable and equivocating Pakistani government and a conflicted and divided Pakistani Army plagued by Pashtun and Sunni defections.

In the 18 months since, the jihadists have held or captured all the tribal areas. In February 2009 President Asif Ali Zardari brokered a ‘sharia-for-peace’ deal with the Taliban in Malakand Division which comprises one third of NWFP and includes the glorious, albeit Taliban-held, Swat Valley. All of NWFP is now either ceded to the Taliban or under some degree of Taliban control or influence.

Emboldened by its Malakand victory and its advances in strategic Peshawar, the Taliban launched its Spring Offensive with a further escalation. In early April a more united Taliban (see RLP 518, 23 Feb 2009) surged with little resistance south east from Swat (towards Islamabad) into Buner District in a ‘blitzkreig’. From there they quickly infiltrated Haripur District which borders the outskirts of Islamabad and Rawalpindi. According to most Western and Indian analysis and intelligence, Pakistan’s fall is inevitable and imminent, although according to Pakistan, this assessment is ‘ridiculous’.

The Church in Pakistan’s NWFP is already suffering severe repression and persecution under Taliban tyranny. Christians there are living in fear and paying jizya, the’tax’ or protection money demanded of subjugated Jews and Christians in the Quran (Sura 9:29). Their lives are always in the balance. The Church in Islamabad stands on the brink of the same fate. If the al-Qaeda-Taliban alliance manages to capture Islamabad in the months ahead, the world will instantly become a different place, and the Church in Islamabad and across Pakistan will see suffering and persecution unlike anything it has ever known before.

Report from the Christian Telegraph


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


Promise of negotiated settlement fades; Catholic leaders threatened with legal action.

HANOI, September 26 (Compass Direct News) – Authorities in Hanoi have responded to months of Catholic prayer vigils and demonstrations over disputed land by destroying the one-time residence of the papal nuncio in central Hanoi.

In suddenly bulldozing the land that once served as the Vatican embassy and residence near St. Joseph’s Cathedral last Friday (Sept. 19), the government broke its promise to Catholic leaders in February to negotiate a settlement concerning the property.

The destruction of the building held sacred by Catholics is the latest blow to Christians’ long struggle to get the government to return confiscated church properties. Catholic, Protestant and other religious leaders deemed the government response to peaceful Catholic pressure a serious setback for religious freedom.

Authorities cite Vietnamese law stipulating that lands subject to “land management and socialist land reform policies in place before 1991” cannot be considered.

On Monday (Sept. 22) the Vietnam News Agency reported that the Catholic Church ceded the Nha Chung Vatican Embassy property to the state in 1961 and that it would be turned into a library and park.

“Bookworms will soon be able to enjoy the facilities offered by a brand-new library, located at 42 Nha Chung Street, in Hoan Kiem District,” the state reported. “In addition to all of the services usually offered by a library, situated on the premises of an existing three-story, French-designed building surrounded by greenery and including a childrens’ playground, the renovation, which began last Friday, aims to better meet Hanoians’ demands for relaxation.”

Sources said Vietnam’s frequent pronouncements of new openness to religion, and the formation of a joint Catholic/government working committee regarding relationships with the Vatican and other outstanding matters, may have led Catholics to test the waters. Late last year Catholics began to hold prayer vigils outside the fence of the long-vacant Vatican Embassy seized by the government in the mid-1950s.

The historic building property on Nha Chung Street is adjacent to the Hanoi archbishop and cardinal’s residence and only a half block away from St. Joseph’s Cathedral in Hanoi’s Old Quarter.

The daily morning and evening prayer vigils began to draw large crowds, especially on Saturdays and Sundays, when thousands came to Masses at the cathedral. Authorities in a country where demonstrations are not allowed became seriously worried when warnings to stop went unheeded.

In discussion with Catholic leaders in late February, the government agreed to negotiate a settlement in good faith on the condition that Catholic leaders would call a halt to the prayer vigils. Archbishop of Hanoi Ngo Quang Kiet told Compass in April that after agreeing to a joint working committee, the government showed no sincerity in building relationships or in settling grievances.

In late August an aide to the archbishop told Compass in Hanoi that the twice daily prayer vigils had resumed. At that time about 100 people participated each time, but the number and intensity was growing. Catholic leaders made no secret of their appeal to prayer and assembled people as their only tools in their struggle with the government for redress on confiscated properties.

In recent weeks the Redemptorists at Thai Ha, also in Hanoi, also began prayer vigils to recover some of their large property. Over the years their part of an original plot of 60,000 square meters had been reduced by government confiscation to less than 2,000 square meters.

According to observers, the Catholics conducted themselves during their vigils with decorum and order as they reverently marched, prayed and sang. The government’s response however, quickly escalated from accusing the Catholics of interfering with traffic to accusing them of all night public disturbances – and then accusing Catholic leaders of inciting riots and breaking religion laws.


Catholic Leaders Warned

Authorities this week delivered a written warning to Archbishop Kiet warning him of “extreme action” if he did not stop the daily prayer vigils. They also issued a warning to four priests at a Hanoi church locked in the land dispute. The archbishop and priests are accused of “stirring the population” and encouraging illegal religious activity.

State and Hanoi city media releases and radio and TV coverage during September painted the Catholics in the worst possible light; sources said the media fabricated stories and paid people to speak against the Catholics. With no opportunity to make their side of the story known through Vietnam’s state-controlled media, Catholics are reporting events through VietCatholic News, Zenit and other overseas news sites.

Catholic calls for media to retract specific, demonstrably false stories and appeals to press laws have gone entirely unheeded. Rather, sources said, improbable accusations and vicious slander against Catholics sharply escalated.

Vietnam Cardinal Jean Baptiste Pham Minh Man, archbishop of Saigon, wrote a letter to all priests, religious and faithful on Monday (Sept. 22) denouncing the state’s media lies. Unrest is spreading throughout Vietnam’s Catholic community, believed to number more than 7 million, as the letter by the cardinal and others by bishops are read in the churches.


Thugs Bussed In

Demonstrations escalated this week with estimates of 7,000 to 10,000 people, including students gathered at Thai Ha on Wednesday night (Sept. 24). It was said to be the largest public demonstration since the Communist unification of Vietnam 33 years ago.

Wednesday afternoon (Sept. 24), hundreds of police and plainclothes officers tried to control an upset crowd of Catholics as a statue of the Virgin Mary was removed from the Vatican Embassy area under police protection and taken to an unknown location. The next day, sources said, authorities recruited gangs that included uniformed Communist youth league members and others and bussed them to the site, where they attacked Catholic protestors outside the archbishop’s residence.

Similar gangs destroyed property, including sacred items at Thai Ha, the same day.

The state media also announced that the 17,000-square meter Thai Ha Redemptorist property in Hanoi is also to be turned into a public park.

The reversion to old-style, default Communist repression involving violence cloaked in lies is also worrying to Vietnam’s Protestants, some of whom have joined Catholics in the prayer vigils.

Protestant leaders contacted by Compass were united in their disappointment in and condemnation of the government’s belligerent response to peaceful prayer vigils.

“Sadly, the government has again shown its true attitude toward religions,” said one Protestant leader. “We have doubted the sincerity of recent improvements, and now they have clearly shown everyone what is still in their hearts.”

Some Vietnam observers fear the government’s belligerence may be evidence of hard-liners’ ascendance in an ongoing struggle with more moderate reformers. The timing of this property destruction, some Vietnamese church leaders said, is calculated to take advantage of uncertainty in the United States, especially as elections draw near.  

Report from Compass Direct News