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


Bail denied to Christian activist for his own safety; judge also under fire.

ISTANBUL, May 6 (Compass Direct News) – A Pakistani Christian charged with abetting blasphemy against Islam was denied bail for his own safety last week after an Islamist lawyer allegedly threatened his life in a court hearing.

Hector Aleem, 51, remains in Adiyala Jail in Rawalpindi, near Pakistan’s capital of Islamabad. Judge Mustafa Tanveer dismissed his bail application at a court session on Thursday (April 30).

“If the judge does not punish Aleem according to the law, then [we] will kill him ourselves,” said Tariq Dhamal, an attorney for the unnamed complainant, according to a report by the Centre for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS).

Police arrested Aleem last November when a Muslim scholar received a text message insulting the Islamic prophet Muhammad. Authorities charged Aleem with blasphemy and abetting blasphemy, sections 295(c) and 109(bb) respectively of the Pakistani criminal code.

Court evidence shows the text message came from an unlisted phone number, not Aleem’s. At an April 25 hearing, Investigating Officer Zafer Ikbal said he had concluded that evidence proved Aleem’s innocence. Ikbal’s investigation, along with a February judicial decision, resulted in charges of blaspheming Islam being dropped. The charge of abetting blasphemy still stands.

Nevertheless, at the April 25 hearing prosecuting attorneys asserted that Aleem was guilty of blasphemy on grounds that “he is a Christian and can make blasphemous comments about the prophet Muhammad,” according to Katherine Sapna, a field officer for CLAAS.

Aleem’s lawyer, Malik Tafik, said he has filed for upcoming hearings to be closed to the public for fear that Muslim fanatics could try to kill his Christian client. Tafik will present another bail application in the high court of Islamabad on May 14.

Tafik, a Muslim, has come under pressure from the Rawalpindi Bar for taking on the case of a Christian accused of blasphemy. The bar has filed an application against him for handling the case.

Dhamal, the lawyer who allegedly made the death threat against Aleem, is a member of Sunni Tehreek, an Islamist political movement involved in violent sectarian clashes in the last decade.

In the April 25 hearing, five lawyers and 180 Islamist protestors gathered around the courthouse. Tafik said he believes the crowds hoped to intimidate the judge into declaring Aleem guilty. More than 100 protestors have congregated at previous hearings, shouting that Aleem’s life would not be spared and he should be handed over to the police.

Tafik said the judge is afraid to rule in favor of Aleem for fear of his life from Rawalpindi Islamists.

“The judge is under pressure and not deciding the case based on merits,” Tafik said. “He is ready to hear on merits, but the lawyers are just [acting] on the basis of Islamization.”

Pakistan’s blasphemy laws have come under heavy fire from international rights groups. Any private citizen can file blasphemy charges, and they have been used in petty disputes as a means of retaliation as they can destroy reputation, livelihood and possibly lead to the death penalty in the conservative Islamic country.

Before his arrest, Aleem led human rights campaigns on behalf of Christians, particularly a land dispute between a congregation and the Rawalpindi Water and Sanitation Agency, which wanted to demolish their church building.

More Muslims than Christians are charged with blasphemy in Pakistan. In 2008 there were 13 cases registered against Muslims in Punjab province, where Aleem resides, and only six against Christians.

Boy Dies

Insulting Islam is a dangerous activity in the conservative nation of 170 million, but with the spread of the Taliban, non-Muslims fear their very existence will make them a target to fundamentalists.

On April 22 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.

Armed men arrived on the scene and opened fire on Christians who were erasing the graffiti, injuring five. An 11-year-old boy shot in the attack, Irfan Masih, has reportedly since died from his injuries (see “Taliban-Inspired Attacks Hit Christians,” April 27).

Security forces fear that sectarian violence could erupt in the port city of Karachi. They have banned public gatherings and processions, according to Release International aid agency.

Report from Compass Direct News