A Presbyterian church close to the Kashmir border was attacked by a group of Islamic extremists on Sunday April 7.
Seven youths, aged between 14 and 25, armed with automatic weapons, stormed the church in Satrah village near Gujranwala district. They broke up the evening service, verbally abused the congregation and fired randomly into the air.
When the church minister called for help through the church loudspeakers, the attackers fled the scene. Although no one was injured, the three hundred Christian families living in the area were terrified.
Gujranwala district is renowned for being a breeding ground for religious extremism. Islamic militant groups such as the Lakshar-I-Taiba, Jash-I-Mohammad, Harkat-ul- Mujahideen and Muslim fighters are active in the region. Many Muslim youths from the area have joined the Taliban for the ‘Jihad’ in Afghanistan.
According to an eye-witness, three of the youths were members of local Islamic militant groups and had received training in Afghanistan.
Despite repeated requests from the Christian community, the local police and the Senior Superintendent were reluctant to file a first incident report. The local authorities also reportedly offered little sympathy.
Local Christians believe the attack is a further gesture of retaliation by Islamists to President Musharraf’s decisions to side with the US against the Taliban regime and to confront extremism inside the country.
Several months ago, a local Muslim fighter group demanded that the Presbyterian minister close his church and threatened to attack it if he continued to conduct services.
This is the second serious attack on Christian churches in under a month, and the third this year. Three weeks ago, Pakistan hit international headlines when Islamic extremists hurled grenades into a protestant church in the diplomatic area in Islamabad, killing five people and injuring over 40 others.
Recently, President Musharraf has taken groundbreaking steps to arrest extremists, ban militant groups and regulate the madrassahs (religious schools), but violence has continued.
The growing number of Pakistanis joining the Taliban forces has exacerbated the military government’s dilemma.
Various Islamic groups and elements within the military are criticising the President for limiting the power of those actively involved in Kashmir and thereby abandoning his claim to the region. Extremists have vowed to depose the military leader, describing him as a ‘threat to national security’.
Meanwhile, the minority faith communities remain concerned that they would bear the brunt of extremist aggression and that fundamentalists would use the US-Afghan conflict as a pretext to step up their attacks. Pakistan Christians remain fully alert and closely monitor the situation as events unfold.
CSW is calling on the Government of Pakistan to bring to justice those responsible for carrying out and inciting this and all previous attacks on churches and to augment security provisions for the Christian minority.
Mervyn Thomas, Chief Executive of CSW, said: “We are profoundly disturbed by this series of attacks on Christian churches. It is appalling that, despite the President’s repeated assurances to protect the Christian community, the local authorities are still reluctant to take up their cases.
“Driven by an intense desire to Islamise Pakistan, Islamic militant groups have become one of the most divisive forces in the country. For Pakistan to move towards progressive Islam, President Musharraf must take concrete steps to oversee the complete disarming of these militant groups and bring to justice all those who incite sectarian and religious violence.”