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


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


Would-be rapist instigates attack in response to charges leveled against him.

ISTANBUL, March 9 (Compass Direct News) – Gun and club attacks on a Presbyterian church and neighboring homes in the predominantly Christian area of a village in Pakistan last week killed one woman and left 16 people wounded.

Seeking revenge for a robbery complaint that a Christian filed against him, local Muslim Waseem Butt on March 2 led groups of his friends and family members in indiscriminate attacks aimed at the Christian community in Sangu-Wali, village, near Aroop town in Gujranwala district, reported advocacy group Sharing Life Ministries Pakistan (SLMP).

Groups of between five and 15 Muslims arriving from different directions attacked the church and area homes, said Sohail Johnson, head of SLMP. During the violence, 45-year-old Shakeela Bibi sustained bamboo rod blows to the head and died before reaching the hospital.

“The death of my wife is an irreparable loss to me and my children,” Manzoor Masih, Bibi’s husband, told SLMP. “I am concerned that Muslims are very strong here, we are poor, and we can not afford enmity with them. They will kill us too.”

Armed members of the attackers prevented ambulances from attending the scene by firing shots into the air, according to the SLMP report.

SLMP and the Centre for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS) reported that the attack followed an attempt by a Christian to file a First Instance Report (FIR) with police against two Muslims for robbery and attempted rape.

Imran Masih, 18, accused Butt and Zeeshan Butt of stealing a cell phone and 3,000 rupees (US$40) before trying to sodomize him. Masih reported that he was on his way home from work on Feb. 26 when the two Muslims attacked him, and that he managed to escape before they could rape him.

“The Christians are poor and have no weight here,” said SLMP’s Johnson, so Muslims assume, “‘We are Kashmiri, we are Muslim, we are rich – they are sweepers, they are poor, they are weak, they are the minority, how are they going to move a [criminal charge] against us?’ This was in their mind.”

The mother-in-law of the woman who was killed suffered head and spinal injuries in the attack. Naziran Bibi, 80, remained in the hospital along with two others at press time. Another 10 victims, most suffering from head injuries, were treated overnight and released the next day.

Police arrested Waseem Butt shortly after the FIR was filed, and in the past few days they have also tracked down and jailed two other suspects. Widower Masih named more than 10 people in the FIR, accusing them of murder and trespassing. The other attackers have fled the village. Police told SLMP that they will continue to pursue the fugitives and bring them to justice.

Masih, however, has come under pressure to drop the case. He has received both threats and offers for financial settlement, an official with the National Commission for Justice and Peace said. Yousaf Benjamin of the commission said Muslims “see that it is very easy for a Muslim to kill a Christian and then offer some money to the family.”

“So Mr. Manzoor [Masih] has to be an example for the others,” Benjamin said. “He should not hesitate to go for legal procedures. He should not go for the money, he should go to the court and see the decision they make.”

Disregard for the rights and liberties of minority Christians in Pakistan is worsened by a culture of bribery, which often precludes the poor from fair treatment by authorities and recourse to legal protection. But investigating police officer Mohammad Riaz has promised that officers will ask for nothing and do their utmost to help the victims.

“It was very shocking to me that the culprits trespassed in Christians’ houses and attacked females of the family,” Riaz told CLAAS and SLMP investigators.

Report from Compass Direct News