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Pakistan: Church Shooting Shocks Nation

An attack by gunmen this week that killed 16 people attending a church service in eastern Pakistan has raised fears that Islamic extremists may be targeting the country's minority Christian community amid tensions over Afghanistan.

Islamabad, 30 October 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Sixteen Christians were killed in the eastern Pakistan city of Bahawalpur while they attended church services on Sunday (28 October).

According to Pakistani newspapers that quoted witnesses, four armed men arrived on motorcycles outside the church and first shot dead a police constable posted outside the church. They then entered the building and killed 16 of the worshippers and wounded another nine in a blast of indiscriminate fire. The attackers then fled, and police are continuing to search for them.

As most of the victims were buried today (30 October), Pakistani political leaders strongly condemned the killings. President Pervez Musharraf sent condolences, while two cabinet ministers -- for minorities and for religious affairs -- attended in person. Leaders of Pakistan's main Islamic parties also attended, including the mainstream Jamaat-i Islami and the more militant Jamiat Ulema-i Islam.

So far, no individuals or groups have claimed responsibility for the killings, and the police have refrained from naming suspects. But press speculation has pointed to Muslim extremists, and many commentators have suggested the killings may be directly tied to tensions over U.S.-led military strikes on neighboring Afghanistan.

The attacks have received front-page notice for two days -- and the funerals have brought out top political and Muslim leaders -- because the mass killing of Christians is unprecedented in Pakistan's recent history.

Rifaat Hussain is a professor of politics at Quaid-i Azam University in Islamabad. He says he recalls no such large-scale attack on Pakistan's tiny Christian minority -- which is less than three percent of the population -- in the last 20 to 30 years.

"This is totally unprecedented in terms of the scale and the scope of this attack. In fact, this is the only incident I can recall in the last 20 to 30 years when a church has been attacked and a mass murder has been committed inside the premises of a church. Yes, there have been incidents of violence against individual Christians, but the places of worship have never been attacked and never has such a large number of people been killed in this kind of attack."

When Pakistan has seen mass killings of members of a religious group in recent years, they are usually carried out by extremist members of the Sunni Muslim majority targeting members of the Shiite Muslim minority -- or vice versa. Those tit-for-tat attacks usually claim several dozen victims each year and are attributed to religious intolerance among radical members of the two rival sects.

Hussain says that where tensions exist between Pakistan's Muslims and Christians, it is usually motivated by individual property or other local disputes. Those disputes have turned more rancorous in recent years as some Muslims have sought to use Pakistan's strict blasphemy law to demand the arrest of Christian rivals. The law permits plaintiffs to accuse a Christian -- or another Muslim -- of blasphemy against Islam's Prophet Mohammed without requiring written evidence, offering an easy way to drag opponents through lengthy court proceedings.

"For the past 10 to 15 years, the relationship between the Christian minority and the Muslim majority, which is 97 percent of the Pakistani population, has been tense. And for one very specific reason, which is the whole question of blasphemy. There has been a whole string of blasphemy accusations that have been made by the [Islamic] religious right people against the Christians. And that has been the most immediate, I would even say sole, cause of tension between the Christians and the Muslims.

"Beyond that, we do not have any history of the Christians being persecuted by the Muslims. In fact, the Christians have played a very important role in Pakistan's nation-building. They have held some very key positions in the armed forces, in the bureaucracy. They have produced civilian leaders, civil society leaders and the relationship has been remarkably tension-free."

The penalty for blasphemy -- which is rarely invoked -- is death. The government of President Pervez Musharraf has sought to make the law less open to abuse by calling for new requirements that charges can only be filed with senior magistrates and on the basis of physical evidence. But right-wing Islamist groups have lobbied hard against the changes, and the government has since dropped its proposals.

The usually local nature of disputes between Pakistani Muslims and Christians has led many here to conclude that the Bahawalpur attack has less to do with religion or even economics than it has to do with politics. If so, some analysts speculate, the attack could well have been carried out by extremist Sunni groups striking out against Musharraf's pro-Washington stance in the Afghan crisis.

Hussain says some Sunni extremists have long relied on their close ties to the Taliban to have a ready refuge in Afghanistan, and they view the attacks on the militia as a direct threat to their own operations. Among these groups is the armed wing of one of the most militant Sunni parties in Pakistan, the Sipah-e Sabah. The armed wing, the Lashkar-e Jhangvi, has been banned by the Musharraf government after members were convicted of killing Pakistani Sunni Muslims. Several of those convicted remain are now in Afghanistan, and Islamabad's calls for their return by the Taliban have gone unheeded.

That could mean that, as Muslim militant groups here portray the Afghan crisis as a war between East and West, Pakistan's small Christian minority has become a target with symbolic value for at least some of the most violent members. At the moment, no one knows if such gunmen will strike again. But Pakistani officials are taking the possibility seriously enough to consider security measures.

The governor of Pakistan's eastern province of Punjab, where the massacre took place, called today for larger police guards at all places of worship.