Suspected Islamists Shoot Five Christians to Death in Pakistan

Muslim extremist groups had threatened church for two years.

SUKKUR, Pakistan, July 29 (CDN) — A dozen masked men shot five Christians to death as they came out of their church building here on July 15, two months after a banned Islamic extremist group sent church leaders a threatening letter, relatives said.

Pastor Aaron John and church members Rohail Bhatti, Salman John, Abid Gill and Shamin Mall of Full Gospel Church were leaving the church building after meeting to discuss security in light of the threats they had received, said the pastor’s son, Shahid John.

“As we came out of the church, a group of a dozen armed gunmen came and opened fire at us,” said Shahid John, who survived a bullet in his arm. “Fear struck the area. The police arrived 45 minutes after the incident, and we waited for over 45 minutes for the ambulance to arrive.”

Besides Shahid John, five others were wounded in the attack.

In May church leaders received a letter from Islamic extremist group Sip-e-Sahaba (formerly Sipah-e-Sahaba until it was banned) warning the Christians to leave the area, said Kiran Rohail, wife of the slain Rohail Bhatti.

“It said to vacate the land, Christians are not welcomed here, they are polluting our land,” Kiran Rohail said.

The Sip-e-Sahaba and Sunni Tehrik extremist groups are both linked with an area madrassa (Islamic school) whose students had been threatening the church since 2008, Christian sources said.

“In 2008 a group of Muslim students started making threats for the church to vacate the land, as there are only 55 Christian families living in the area,” said the pastor’s widow, Naila John, who also lost her son Salman John in the attack.

The masked gunmen of July 15 had young physiques like those of students, Christian sources said, and their manner of attack indicated they were trained extremists.

The madrassa students that have threatened the church since 2008 belong to the Sunni Tehrik extremist group, the sources said.

Pastor John and Bhatti had reported the threats of the past two years to police, but officers at the local station did not take them seriously, said Naila John.

When they received the threatening letter in May, Pastor John, his son Salman, Bhatti, Gill, Mall and another member of the church, Arif Gill, went to the police station to register a First Information Report (FIR), according to Shahid John.

“Police just took the application but didn’t register the FIR,” he said. “The station house officer just provided two police constables for security.”

On the evening of July 15, the pastor called a meeting to discuss needed security measures, his widow Naila John said. The meeting ended around 7:30 p.m., when they left the building and were sprayed with gunfire.

“No FIR has been registered due to the pressure from the local Islamic groups,” said Kiran Rohail, referring to Sunni Tehrik, Sip-e-Sahaba and the local mosque. “The police came and took our statements, but they didn’t show up again.”

An independent government source confirmed the shooting deaths of the Christians, adding that local Islamist pressure had prevented media from reporting on it.

The church began in 1988, and Pastor John had been leading it since 2001.

Sukkur, in southwest Pakistan’s Sindh Province, has been the site of previous violence against Christians. Last June or July, area Christians said, students from the local madrassa beat Pastor Adnan John of Multan, severely injuring him, after they saw him walking in front of the mosque wearing a cross and holding a Bible. In another instance, the Muslim students prevented Christian students from holding a Christmas program at a park.

In 2006, some 500 Muslims burned down two churches in Sukkur and a convent school on Feb. 19, reportedly over rumors that a Christian threw a copy of the Quran into a trash can. A crowd wielding gasoline bombs torched St. Mary’s Catholic Church and St. Savior’s Church of Pakistan after media and government sources floated the rumor, but local sources said the violence occurred after a Muslim was arrested for burning pages of the Quran and trying to frame his Christian father-in-law, Saleem Gill, with the deed.

After torching the inside of St. Savior’s, the mob turned on Pastor Ilyas Saeed Masih’s home, then went five minutes away to destroy the 120-year-old St. Mary’s edifice.

Report from Compass Direct News

Accused Pakistani Christian Says Muslims Tried to Coerce Him

Freed on bail, Naveed Masih on trial for killing Muslim in Islamist attack on Gojra.

LAHORE, Pakistan, December 29 (CDN) — A Pakistani Christian accused of killing a Muslim during the Aug. 1 Islamist attack on Christians in Gojra said he was arrested and tortured only because he was a key witness of the mob assault that left at least seven Christians burned to death.

Naveed Masih, released on bail on Wednesday (Dec. 23), told Compass that several Muslims have offered him large amounts of money to alter his testimony regarding the assault in Gojra, 50 kilometers (31 miles) from Faisalabad in Punjab Province. The mob attack, prompted by calls from Muslim clerics spreading a false rumor of “blasphemy” of the Quran, included banned Islamic terrorist groups and resulted in the looting of more than 100 houses and the burning of 50 of them; at least 19 people were injured.

Masih said one of the Muslims accused in the attack, Qadir Awan, approached him at an early court hearing and invited him to come to his house to strike a cash-for-testimony deal.

“He said that I could make lots of money because I was the witness of the ransacking, but I feared God,” the 32-year-old Masih said. “Because I was not prepared to take money, he had me implicated in the counter-charges.”

He said that several other Muslims contacted him in jail to tell him that they could help him.

“I told them that my brothers and sisters in Pakistan and abroad are more than enough to help me,” he said. “I said, ‘You take care of yourself – you people beg our brothers and sisters in the United States for aid and financial assistance to run the country, how is it that you can help me?’”

Fearing for his life now that he is out on bail, Masih said he has asked several organizations for assistance and, assuming he is acquitted, eventually for safe passage out of Pakistan.

“I would not be left alive if I live here in Pakistan,” he said.

In counter-charges filed as a cover for accused Muslims after Christians filed charges, he said, 129 people including Bishop of Gojra John Samuel were accused in a First Information Report (FIR), yet only Masih and his brother Nauman Masih were arrested. The Faisalabad Anti-Terrorism Court released the 25-year-old Nauman Masih on bail in October.

The Lahore High Court granted bail to Naveed Masih last week after the Faisalabad Anti-Terrorism Court had denied it to him in October. Naveed Masih is accused of killing one of the assailants in the Gojra attacks, Muhammad Asif. He is said to have fired warning shots from a rooftop into the air and at the feet of the approaching Muslim mob to try to disperse them, but both brothers deny using any weapons.

The brothers gave shelter to 300 people during the attacks; they were arrested in early September initially for “rioting with deadly weapons and spreading terror with firing.”

Naveed Masih said police knew the counter-charges filed by Muslims nearly two months after the Aug. 1 attack were entirely concocted, but that they arrested and tortured him anyway.

“When I was arrested, the policemen said, ‘Catch this choohra [a racial slur typically used against Punjabi Christians],’” he told Compass. “They asked me which organization I belonged to, what my mission was and who had sent me on this mission.”

Authorities beat him the first several days in jail, he said.

“They blindfolded me and hung me in a dark well, and sometimes I hung all night upside down without clothes,” he said. “They also kept me hungry and tried to force me to confess that some religious organization funded me to fire a weapon and instigate Muslims.”

Trial Strategies

Akbar Munawar Durrani, an attorney for the Centre for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement, said that the prosecutor in the trial has told the court that Christians were the ones who instigated Muslims by firing weapons, and that for this reason Asif died.

“I told the court,” Durrani said, “that it is strange that two days before the Aug. 1 incident, dozens of houses of Christians were burned in [nearby] Korian village, and then in this incident of Aug. 1 more than 100 houses of Christians were burned, and the prosecution keeps trumpeting this claim that Christians were the aggressors.”

Durrani said that when Lahore High Court Chief Justice Khawaja Sharif asked Investigation Officer Muhammad Aslam about his findings, Aslam told the court that if Christians hadn’t provoked Muslims then nothing would have happened. The judge asked Aslam how many Christians and how many Muslims died, Durrani said, to which the officer replied one Muslim and eight Christians.

“Still you say that Christians were the aggressors,” the judge told Aslam in a reprimanding tone.

Durrani, an executive member of the Supreme Court Bar Association, said he told the court that Masih was implicated in the killing of Asif only because he was one of two witnesses in the FIR filed against the Muslims. If Masih hadn’t defended Christians that day, he told the court, then the Christian Colony in Gojra would have suffered much more harm.

Masih said that he had learned that during the Aug. 1 attack, a member of the banned terrorist group Sipah-e-Sahaba stopped the motorbike he was riding, took gas out of it and set houses on fire.

Nauman Masih has told Compass that of the 17 Muslims named in the FIR on the Aug. 1 attack, only one, Abdul Khalid Kashmiri, was in jail. Kashmiri has offered 1 million rupees (US$12,500) if the Christian complainants would withdraw the case, he added.

The rest of the Muslim assailants are still at large, and sources said police have no intention of arresting them.

Naveed Masih said he learned that even before he was sent to jail, inmates were murmuring that he had killed a Muslim during the mob attack.

“I told them that they only talked about the Muslim who actually came to attack and got killed, but they never mentioned eight Christians who had died during that rampage,” he said. “‘Christians are also human beings,’ I told them, ‘why don’t you count those who were killed by Muslims?’”

He said Muslim inmates often asked him “nonsense questions,” but that he always answered them sensibly.

“I am sure that the Holy Spirit helped me answering them, because once they had asked any such questions, then they never again raised such questions,” he said.

Masih said police stopped torturing him after the first several days in jail. He said he continually prayed for God to free him, as well as for all Christians who supported him and his brother through their ordeal.

Report from Compass Direct News