Pakistani Christians face suspicion, violence

Tiny minority says it is perceived as being loyal to U.S.

Terrorism Strikes America

The Response

October 02, 2001|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

RAWALPINDI, Pakistan - S.M. Gill, an elder at the First United Presbyterian Church here, appreciates the fear many Muslims now face in the United States after the terrorist attacks last month. Like Muslims in America, Gill belongs to a religious minority in a wary, anxious land.

He is a Christian in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.

When Gill lay in bed a few nights ago praying for peace, rocks the size of softballs came flying through the alley and crashed against the metal door of his home. The stones were his punishment for being Christian and a presumed supporter of the United States.

"It was like an explosion," said Gill, 72, pointing out the gashes where the rocks had torn the green paint from his door. The culprits were teen-age Muslim boys who yelled "Chohra!" a Sanskrit word meaning "untouchable." Gill prevented his grandchildren from chasing the vandals. He warned that they could cause a riot in a neighborhood where everyone else is Muslim. That latest incident was the third stoning of Gill's house in two months.

"It is only because I belong to Christianity," said Gill, a frail, retired chief sanitary inspector.

Tensions in Pakistan's small Christian community after the terrorist attacks in the United States are the latest in what Christians here say is a history of religious discrimination and intermittent persecution. Christians account for about 2 percent of Pakistan's 141 million people, with Muslims accounting for nearly all the rest.

After the attacks in New York and Washington, some Christians temporarily fled their homes out of fear of mob violence. Police and the military, to ensure security, have at times stationed armed guards at church gates and in slums where Christians live.

Some Muslim prayer leaders have urged their followers to take revenge on Pakistani Christians for attacks on Muslims in the United States. Tensions eased when the United States refrained from responding militarily. But some Christians are bracing for unrest if and when an American response occurs.

"They can tomorrow burn our churches," the Rev. Emmanuel Lorraine said after the Sunday service in English at the 149-year old Christ Church. "If this erupts in our country, I believe no one will be able to stop them."

In a nation created in the name of Islam, Muslim faith pervades many aspects of life.

Before a plane takes off, passengers pray with the pilot. In the evening on the streets of Rawalpindi, men in traditional flowing shirts and baggy pants block road entrances as they kneel on prayer rugs and bow toward the setting sun.

Christians try to adapt.

Before entering Our Lady, a Catholic church in Rawalpindi, they slip off their loafers, sandals and sneakers according to Muslim custom. When giving Communion at Christ Church, Lorraine substitutes grape juice for wine out of respect for the Muslim prohibition on alcohol.

Still, Christians face political and social hurdles that no gestures can overcome.

Under Pakistani law, Christians can hold no more than four seats allocated among the 217-seat National Assembly. They are barred from holding key government positions, including prime minister and president.

Just as Muslims in America have been unfairly associated with the Islamic militants suspected of the attacks, Christians here are often blamed for the acts - real or imagined - of the United States.

Lorraine blames much of the tension on Pakistan's twin ills of illiteracy and poverty and to the incendiary rhetoric of some Muslim prayer leaders. Explaining religious attacks that occur in the United States is more difficult, he says: "These are the things that the illiterate people of Third World countries think is right. Educated people shouldn't behave like that."

Muslims and Christians last clashed in Rawalpindi in 1998 after a Roman Catholic bishop committed suicide. The bishop, John Joseph, was protesting the nation's draconian blasphemy law under which a 25-year-old Christian bricklayer had been sentenced to death on charges of insulting the prophet Muhammad.

After Joseph shot himself, thousands of Christians marched through the city, hurling rocks at passing cars. Muslims responded by beating several dozen Christians with clubs, kicking in doors, breaking car windows and ransacking homes.

Stephen, a local tax inspector and churchgoer who asked that his full name not be used, said he remembers the riots well. His brother was among those beaten. A neighbor received four stitches in his head from a clubbing injury.

The Friday after the terrorist attacks in America, Stephen and hundreds of fellow Christians packed their bags, locked their doors and fled to the homes of relatives and friends. Anticipating a repeat of 1998, they feared that prayer leaders in a nearby mosque would encourage worshippers to attack their homes.

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