16 killed at church service in Pakistan

Shooting attack confirms fears of Christian minority

War On Terrorism

October 29, 2001|By John Murphy and Dan Fesperman | John Murphy and Dan Fesperman,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- The worst fears of Pakistan's Christian minority were realized yesterday when gunmen stormed into a church service in the southern city of Bahawalpur, spraying bullets. They killed 16 people, including the pastor.

The attack, on Protestants who were nearing the end of a service they hold in a Catholic church, was a reminder of the violent passions and sectarian tensions at work here as the United States attacks Islamic radicals in nearby Afghanistan.

"This thing has been building and building," said the Rev. Jim Nuttal, 65, of Boston, one of two Dominican priests who serves St. Dominic's Catholic Church, the site of the attack. "With all of the people dying in Afghanistan, it has raised the temperature, so that those who are inclined to be involved in this sort of thing become more bold."

Families stood in the pews singing the final hymn of their service when gunmen on motorbikes rode up to the church in Punjab Province and opened fire on the congregation.

Carrying sacks of guns and ammunition, the men targeted the churchgoers at will, stopping several times to reload their weapons. Worshippers dove behind the pews or ran to the altar, taking cover in the sacristy from the spray of bullets.

When the gunmen fled, they left 146 shell casings on the church floor and 16 people dead.

"Within five minutes it was all over. There is not one single wall that doesn't have bullets in it," said Sister Anna Bakhsha, who watched from the convent across the street as the gunmen rode away on their motorbikes.

Ever since the U.S. bombing attacks began on neighboring Afghanistan, Pakistan's Christians have been concerned that the anti-American protests here would lead to a backlash against them.

Bakhsha said she had written local authorities three weeks ago asking for extra protection because of rising tensions in the area, but none had responded.

"The method used and the inhuman tactics clearly indicate involvement of trained terrorists of organizations bent on creating discord and disharmony in Pakistan, where Christians and Muslims have always lived in peace and mutual respect for each other," Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, said in a statement yesterday.

"I would, however, assure everyone that we will track down the culprits and bring them to justice," he said.

Musharraf has been struggling to keep the lid on the strong opposition by militant Muslims to his country's cooperation with the U.S. campaign against terrorism. Protests have rocked the country's major cities since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, threatening to destabilize the politically fragile country.

Witnesses said six bearded men rode up on two motorcycles to St. Dominic's Church at about 8:45 a.m., during a weekly Protestant worship service that precedes a 9 a.m. Catholic mass.

The gunmen shot the armed police guard outside, and then part of the group entered the sanctuary and began firing at 40 to 50 people inside.

"Some of them lay down. Some begged for mercy. They didn't listen," Ali Shah told the Associated Press. Shah, a man in his early 20s who was in the front pew of St. Dominic's when the masked gunmen burst in, was among the five wounded being treated.

The church's other priest, the Rev. Rocus Patras, said that three days ago a local man drew suspicion by asking aggressively for entry after inquiring about worship schedules.

When the man was refused entry, he said, "OK, you are not letting me enter, but we can enter from anywhere." According to Patras, police were called, but they told the guard not to worry because the man was unbalanced. The guard, Mohammad Saleem, was the first one killed.

Patras said that he was with 10 small children lined up for water outside the parish house across the street when the shooting began. All of them reached safety.

"This terrorism is going on because of the bombing in Afghanistan," Patras said. "There are so many [militant Muslim] organizations that have come from this city calling for jihad. There had not been any threats here, as such, but we know that this situation is going on in all of the country."

About 97 percent of Pakistan's 140 million people are Muslim. The remaining 3 percent are Hindu and Christian.

Soshil Kumar Tressler, minister of minorities, sports and culture, called the killings "the worst incident that has ever happened in our country," the first mass killing of Christians in memory and one of the largest sectarian attacks.

"This sort of thing has never happened in this country," he said. "This is a clear act of terrorism."

Authorities in Pakistan's four provinces ordered increased security at Christian churches yesterday afternoon.

Pope John Paul II condemned the killings yesterday as "an evil act" and said he was praying for the victims and their families. The pope's office sent a telegram to the Pakistan Catholic Church "expressing his absolute condemnation of this further tragic act of intolerance."

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