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


Serious charges about security in Pakistan have been provided to ANS by a reliable source in Pakistan speaking on condition of anonymity, reports Jeremy Reynalds, correspondent for ASSIST News Service.

The anonymous source said in an e-mail that Pakistan’s government needs to make clear its real intentions.

He said that while Pakistan tells India, the U.S. and the rest of the world that the country doesn’t allow terrorists to operate internally, the Taliban has successfully consolidated its control in the Swat Valley during the last year.

The source charged the Taliban in Swat with an ongoing reign of terror.

He said, “They have banned women from the marketplace, killed dozens of innocent people everyday and left their bodies in the street or hanging on a pole in a busy shopping area, some of them headless.”

He said among other atrocities, Taliban members in Swat have also “bombed 200 schools, banned girls’ education in the whole valley (preventing 80,000 girls from going to school), killed politicians, policeman and their relatives, destroyed dozens of homes, destroyed barber shops where men had their beards trimmed, blown up music shops and threatened bus drivers with suicide bombers if they do not stop playing music on their buses.”

The source told ANS that police officers are rarely seen in public and when they travel, they have a military escort. In addition, he said, the Peshawar High Court has said it plans to close its courts in Swat because of an inability to function under current conditions. There is also a plan, he said, as a result of pressure from the Taliban, to legalize Shariah (Islamic) law in much of the province.

“In light of this,” the source said, “people need to know what the prime minister, president and others in leadership positions mean when they say that they will not allow terrorists to operate on its soil. If they are so concerned about other countries respecting their sovereignty, they should explain to the rest of us why they allow these evil men to continue to flagrantly violate the constitution of Pakistan.”

The source asked, “When will these leaders, who were elected less than a year ago, finally decide to take a stand and protect the very people who elected them to office?”

The source concluded his comments by saying the international media need to put a spotlight on this issue, and start asking the government hard questions.

ANS discovered that some media are already drawing attention to the situation. In a story by Andrew Buncombe and Omar Waraich in Britain’s Independent newspaper, the writers reported that Taliban members in the Swat Valley are issuing “wanted lists” for four dozen people they plan to bring before makeshift Shariah courts.

The Independent said that in one of his “notorious” radio broadcasts, Taliban leader Maulana Fazlullah named politicians and government officials “wanted” by the militants.

“These people encouraged military operations in the area and are responsible for the killings of Taliban and civilians,” the Independent reported the cleric said.

The Independent said the list’s creation is the latest threat from the militants who now control more than three-quarters of the Swat Valley, one of Pakistan’s most celebrated tourist areas.

In recent weeks, the Independent said, their brutality has increased with a series of public executions and the issuing of a number of edicts.

The Independent reported that a spokesman for the Taliban said the wanted list was drawn up following a meeting chaired by Fazlullah.

“All of them will have to appear before the Taliban court, or they will face action,” the Independent reported Muslim Khan, a spokesman for the Swat Taliban, told The News newspaper.

Report from the Christian Telegraph


Blast claims no victims but reflects radical Islam’s tightened grip.

ISTANBUL, October 14 (Compass Direct News) – Taliban militants bombed a Catholic-run girls’ school in Pakistan’s war-torn Swat Valley as part of a larger effort to subvert women’s status in society through Islamic law, locals say.

On Wednesday (Oct. 8) the Islamic terrorist group bombed the Convent Girls’ School in Sangota, run by the Presentation Sisters, a Catholic religious order that has opened girls’ schools around the world. Militants have threatened the school frequently for offering education to females.

No one was injured in the attack. The school had closed a few months earlier due to deteriorating security in Swat, a source told Compass. Students and faculty left in July following threats.

“The Taliban said, ‘We have asked you so many times to close down the school but you are not listening. We are going to set it on fire,’” said Yousef Benjamin, a Lahore-based peace activist.

Militants had already attacked or blown up and forced the closure of many girls’ schools in Swat, said Cecil Chaudhry, executive secretary of All Pakistan Minorities Alliance. They told the nuns they would destroy their school if it weren’t closed. Following the bombing the militants ransacked the school’s adjoining convent.

The high school enrolled approximately 1,000 female students, nearly 95 percent of them Muslim.

The Santoga school has faced threats from Islamic extremists before. It closed its doors in September 2007 after received a threatening letter from extremists that demanded all teachers and female students wear the burqa. The letter claimed the faculty was working to convert Muslim students to Christianity.

The Taliban has not singled out the school for its Christian ties but instead wants to clamp down on all girls’ schools, which they believe encourage female participation in society, government officials claim.

In the last two years it has indiscriminately targeted more than 150 public and private girls’ schools in northwest Pakistan.

“For them it doesn’t matter if it’s a Christian school, government school or a private school,” Benjamin said. “Last week I was in [the northern city of] Peshawer and the Taliban told women to not even go to the market.”

The Taliban ruled Afghanistan from 1994 to 2001. They severely curtailed women’s rights, barring females from education, employment or traveling outside of their homes without a male relative.

“A few years ago the Taliban government in Afghanistan did not even allow women to be seen outside their houses, and that’s the version of Islam the Taliban promotes,” Chaudhry said.

Located near the Afghanistan border, Swat has been a flash point between the country’s security forces and Islamic militants. The area used to be a thriving tourist haven with hotels and a ski resort but came under complete control of Taliban militants in September 2007.

Government security forces cleared out the Taliban from the valley in recent months, but the area came under their control once again three weeks ago.

With their re-asserted control, the Taliban has forced all Swat residents to live according to their strict lifestyle guidelines, whether Muslim or Christian.

Men have grown beards and adopted Islamic dress. Women are required to wear burqas and sit in the back seat of their own vehicles. Advertisements cannot feature pictures of women.

“The Taliban wants to create a culture of terror, insecurity and they want to impose a self-created system of sharia [Islamic law] inspired by the system in Afghanistan,” said Shabhaz Bhatti, a National Assembly member from the Punjab province and chairman of the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance.

The 70 or so Christian families scattered in the valley occupy the lower class, working as laborers and street sweepers.

Since July 2007, militants and followers of Muslim cleric Maulana Fazlullah have pressured the tiny community of Christians to accept Islamic law.


Political Motives

Islamic militants have stepped up attacks across Pakistan in recent weeks. Last Thursday (Oct. 9) a suicide bomber injured eight people in an attack on an Islamabad police station. In September another suicide bomber killed 50 people at the Marriott Hotel.

Motivations for the surge in attacks could be political as well as religious. Pakistani forces have been cracking down on militants in the nation’s tribal areas as the government has resolved to fight domestic terrorism.

The Pakistani military launched a three-week-long air strike operation in Afghanistan in August and killed more than 400 Taliban militants. Pakistan declared a cease-fire in September during Ramadan.

The militant attacks could also be in retaliation to recent U.S. bombings against Taliban targets within Pakistan, a source told Compass.

Inter-Services Intelligence Director Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha told Pakistan’s parliament on Wednesday (Oct. 8) that the Taliban had gained complete control over certain districts of the country. The military has attempted to regain control in a bitter struggle that has claimed the lives of 1,368 troops since 2001, according to the Pakistani Daily Times.

While Christians are worried about their safety, they stress that the Taliban is a threat to all Pakistanis, regardless of religion.

They urged fellow Christians to pray for the surging violence within the country to ebb.

“We ask a special prayer for peace in our country and that the terrorist elements who believe in violence would not succeed in killing innocent people,” Bhatti said. “Pray for Pakistani Christians – may God protect them and give them courage to remain strong in their faith and witness.”

Report from Compass Direct News