The Fear That Haunts Peshawar

Originally posted on TIME:

Two weeks after a Taliban attack on a local school killed 147 people, 136 of them children, the Pakistani city of Peshawar is still raw with grief and fear.

The capital city of the restive Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (or the North-West Frontier Province as it used to be known) often finds itself in the front line of the 10-year-old Taliban insurgency and has witnessed appalling bloodshed.

But the Dec. 16 attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar surpassed even those standards of horror. It was the worst single terrorist attack in the history of a country that, according to the Global Terrorism Index, is the world’s most affected by terrorism after Iraq and Afghanistan.

Authorities have beefed-up security in the face of the school carnage, and in response to threats of similar attacks from the Taliban. Checkpoints have been stepped up on roads into the city. Surprise swoops netted 1,200…

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Murder of Governor in Pakistan Darkens ‘Blasphemy’ Case

Assassination called a blow to prospects of justice for Christian mother on death row.

LAHORE, Pakistan, January 5 (CDN) — The case of Asia Noreen, the first Christian woman sentenced to death in Pakistan on blasphemy charges, suffered a major setback when her most vocal supporter, the governor of Punjab Province, was gunned down by one of his police bodyguards yesterday (Jan. 4) in Islamabad.

The lives of Noreen and Gov. Salman Taseer were at risk since the day he, his wife and daughter visited her in the Sheikhupura District Jail on Nov. 22, after news of her conviction appeared in the media.

Taseer had openly criticized the blasphemy statutes and vowed to try to repeal the “black laws” in parliament. He also promised Noreen (also called Asia Bibi) that he would recommend a presidential pardon for her.

The governor’s assurance and his support for Noreen gave new hope to the impoverished mother of two children and step-mother to three others – and drew violent condemnation from Islamist forces, sparking countrywide protests.

“The governor’s visit gave us hope that all was not lost,” Sohail Johnson of Sharing Life Ministries Pakistan, which has pursued Noreen’s case from the onset, told Compass. “We believed that God had sent the governor to help us … his words of support boosted Noreen’s morale, and she was actually quite optimistic about the outcome of her appeal in the high court.”

He said the murder of Taseer in broad daylight had shocked all those opposing the blasphemy laws, and that “there is little hope of these laws ever being repealed.”

Johnson confirmed that Noreen’s life was at high risk ever since the governor had highlighted her case.

“The local Islamist forces believed that President [Asif Ali] Zardari would pardon Noreen on Taseer’s recommendation, and this was unacceptable to them,” said Johnson, confirming that intelligence agencies had determined that Islamists had plotted to kill Noreen inside jail to make an example of her. “Noreen was earlier allowed two hours in the morning and two in the evening to go outside her cell to relax. After the intelligence information, the jail authorities restricted her movement, and now she is kept in the cell at all times. A security guard has also been deployed with her.”

He added that news of the assassination of the governor would surely panic the Christian woman.

Johnson said Noreen’s appeal of her conviction had yet to be taken up for hearing by the Lahore High Court, but that the murder would definitely affect the course of justice. “The governor’s brutal murder has diminished our hopes for justice for Noreen,” he said.

Her family, he said, has been in hiding since Islamist parties started protests in favor of the blasphemy laws.

“Even I am keeping a low profile these days,” Johnson said.

Taseer and Noreen were declared “Wajibul Qatil” (liable to be killed) by radical Islamic clerics. A cleric in Peshawar and a local politician in Multan offered a combined sum of 50 million rupees (US$579,300) for anyone who killed Taseer and Noreen.

Protests, shut-down strikes and general uproar pressured Pakistan’s federal government to announce that the blasphemy laws would not be repealed.

Taseer, however, continued to publicly vent his opposition – even using Twitter – to the blasphemy laws, which effectively mandate death for anyone convicted of insulting Muhammad, the prophet of Islam. Although courts typically overturn convictions, and no executions have been carried out, rights activists say the laws are used to settle rivalries and persecute religious minorities.

On Friday (Dec. 31), Taseer had tweeted “I was under huge pressure 2 cow down b4 rightest pressure on blasphemy. Refused. Even if I’m the last man standing.”

The assassination is significant not simply because of the person targeted and the reason behind it, but because of the broader societal implications.

“[It points to] the presence of radical elements inside the Pakistani state apparatus,” said columnist Cyril Almeida.

He said that the fact that Taseer’s own bodyguard shot him is not just worrying because it indicates a failure of the vetting process but because it points to “the extent to which this poison has affected the Pakistani state. The investment in jihad has come home to roost.”

In the hours immediately following the killing, television anchors hosted several shows in which guests, while stopping short of openly supporting the murder of Taseer, did speak out in support of killing those deemed to have blasphemed. Some Pakistanis have reported that they received text messages on their mobile phones praising the assassination.

Pakistan Interior Minister Rehman Malik has said the guard, Malik Mumtaz Hussein Qadri, told police that he killed Taseer because of the governor’s opposition to Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. Qadri had escorted the governor from Rawalpindi to Islamabad on Tuesday (Jan. 4).

A 26-year-old policeman from Barakhao on the outskirts of Islamabad, Qadri had reportedly transferred to the Elite Force after commando training in 2008. Thus far, he has not been identified as a member of any violent Muslim extremist groups but is considered devout in his faith.

Noreen was convicted under Section 295-C of the defamation statutes for alleged derogatory comments about Muhammad, which is punishable by death, though life imprisonment is also possible. Section 295-B makes willful desecration of the Quran or a use of its extract in a derogatory manner punishable with life imprisonment. Section 295-A of the defamation law prohibits injuring or defiling places of worship and “acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class of citizens.” It is punishable by life imprisonment, which in Pakistan is 25 years.

Report from Compass Direct News

Christian Professor in Pakistan Beaten for Refusing to Convert

In another province, three eighth-grade students expelled for declining Islam.

PESHAWAR, Pakistan, June 25 (CDN) — Muslim students attacked a Christian professor at the University of Peshawar this month after he refused their demand to convert to Islam, the instructor told Compass.

Psychology professor Samuel John, a father of four who has been teaching at the university in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Province for 12 years, said that as he came out of his house on the university campus at 8:30 a.m. on June 14, about 20 to 25 students rushed and assaulted him.

“I shouted for help, but no one came to help,” he said.

When his wife learned what was happening, she ran to help him, but the students beat her as well. Both John and his wife were rushed to Lady Reading hospital, where they were treated for their injuries, with John listed in critical condition.

“I am still getting threats,” the professor told Compass. “They say, ‘Leave the university or accept Islam – if you don’t convert, we will kill your family.”

Police have refused to register a First Information Report on the incident, he said.

A group of five students had visited John on May 15, he said.

“They said, ‘Professor, you are a good teacher and a good human being, please convert to Islam and we will provide you with everything you need,’” John said. “I was surprised and said, ‘Why do you want me to convert? I am a Christian, and Jesus Christ is my Savior – He provides me with everything.”

One of the students became angry, saying, “Don’t forget that you are a family man,” John said. “I said, ‘I am not scared of anyone, God will protect me and my family.’”

He reported the matter to the dean of the University of Peshawar, but the official was unable to take any action because the Islamic students councils are supported by political parties and powerful Islamic groups, the professor said.

His family became worried, and other professors spoke of going on strike on John’s behalf, demanding an apology from the students who threatened him.

“They said, ‘This is a university, no one will be allowed to take the law in their hands – we are professors and teach everyone and do not discriminate by religion, caste, creed or color,’” John said.  

But no action was taken against anyone. John subsequently faced various forms of harassment from different Islamic student groups who threw stones at his home, sent threatening letters and threatened his family over the phone, he said.

John had recently been honored with an award for best results in psychology at colleges throughout Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Province. Muslim professors and Muslim student councils were upset that a Christian professor was getting so much attention, Christian sources said.


Students Pressured

Separately, in Danna village in southern Punjab Province, Muslim administrators told three Christian students in the eighth grade to leave the school because they refused to convert to Islam.

A new teacher of Islamic Studies who came from another village to Government High School Danna urged students in his class, Sunil Masih, Shazia Masih and Nasir Naeem, to convert to Islam, according to the father of Sunil, Ejaz Masih.

The teacher, whom the parents declined to name, is also a Muslim leader.

“The teacher began by saying, ‘Sunil, Shazia and Nasir, convert to Islam – it is the true religion, and you will go straight to heaven,” Ejaz Masih said.

The students reported the pressure to their parents, who came to the school and complained to the principal.

The principal asked the teacher to explain the details of what happened, but other staff members at the school supported the new teacher, Masih said. On June 16, under pressure from other teachers, the principal told the parents to remove their children from the school unless they were willing to convert to Islam.

“We have been forced to leave the village,” Masih said. “The police have refused to help us. We are helpless here.”

Masih, along with Sohail Masih and Naeem Boota, parents of the other children, have fled the village with their families. Their children were the only Christian students at the school.

Report from Compass Direct News


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


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