Pakistani Christians fearful this Christmas

AP News
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Posted: Dec 24, 2009 4:17 PM

Christmas in Gojra, where a tent camp houses Christians who lost their homes to a rampaging Muslim mob, will be celebrated not with decorations and cheer but with fear of another attack.

Those living in the canvas shelters after the worst violence against minorities in Pakistan this year left them homeless say they are still regularly harassed: Rocks are thrown at their camp at night, and they've been threatened by cell phone text messages promising a "special Christmas present."

"Last year I celebrated Christmas full of joy," said Irfan Masih, cradling his young son near one of the open ditches of the tent camp that has been his home for nearly five months. But now "the fear that we may again be attacked is in our hearts.

"They are threatening us, (saying) 'We will again attack you and will not let you out of your homes, we will burn you inside this time,'" he said.

It was the fires that most traumatized Gojra's Christian Colony, a neighborhood in the heart of this Punjabi city about 220 miles (350 kilometers) southwest of Islamabad. In early August, hundreds of Muslims tore through the dirt streets, looting and torching homes as panicked residents tried to flee and thick black smoke rose into the air.

Eight Christians died _ seven of them from one family trapped in a burning home.

"We are going to celebrate Christmas in sorrow because the whole family is hurt by this," said Almas Hameed, whose father was shot dead during the riots. His wife, two of his children and members of his brother's family all burned to death.

The attack, which officials said was incited by a banned radical Islamist group Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan, followed rumors that Christians had torn pages of a Quran, a sacrilegious act for Muslims. The ensuing violence drew condemnation from the Pope and Pakistan's prime minister, and highlighted how religious extremism has left the country's minority groups increasingly vulnerable.

Christians _ Protestants and Catholics among them _ make up less than 5 percent of Muslim-majority Pakistan's 175 million people.

Christians say more than 100 homes were burned and looted in Gojra and the nearby village of Korian. While many homes have been rebuilt using state money, dozens of families are still living in tents, waiting for construction on their houses to finish.

Both those who have moved back into their homes and the ones still in the camp say they are still regularly threatened _ phone calls telling them to stop pressing for those responsible to be convicted, or else; armed men turning up at their homes; text messages on their cell phones promising a "special Christmas present;" rocks thrown at the tents in the night.

"When we sleep at night the fear never leaves our heart," said Safia Riaz, a 30-year-old whose father died of a heart attack during the riots. The violence "has stuck in our minds. Tension remains _ God forbid that it will happen again."

Strict security was being put into place during Christmas, said police officer Mohammed Tahir of the Faisalabad regional police headquarters, who rejected claims that authorities were unable to protect the minority.

Security has been ramped up across the country anyway, as this year Christmas falls during the Islamic month of Muharram, which is often marred by bombings and fighting between Pakistan's Sunni Muslims and its Shiite minority.

On Thursday, a suicide bomber killed five people near government buildings and a church in the northwestern city of Peshawar, though the attack appeared unrelated to Christmas. Authorities said the target was unclear. Another suicide bomber targeting a Shiite shrine on the outskirts of Islamabad Thursday night killed a young girl and wounding a policeman. The bomber detonated his explosives before reaching the shrine itself after a policeman challenged him, authorities said.

But Gojra's Christians have little faith in the police, who were accused of standing by during the worst of August's violence.

"The police already didn't save us before," said Ashar Faras, a 33-year-old who works as a chef in an Islamabad guesthouse.

Pastor Safraz Sagar, a local clergyman who also lost his home in the riots, believes there is little authorities can do. "They are trying to protect us, but I think that when the terrorists want to harm us, they will."

Many complain they see no justice, noting that there have been no convictions of anyone involved in the rioting. They say those who led the mob are well-known in the town, but are left untouched.

Extremists have increasingly targeted minority religious groups in Pakistan. Minority Rights Group International, a watchdog organization, lists Pakistan as seventh on the list of 10 most dangerous countries for minorities, after Somalia, Sudan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Myanmar and Congo.

The government stressed it is committed to minority rights.

"Today, more than ever, we need to rediscover the path of peaceful coexistence," Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani said in a Christmas message, adding that the government is "committed to working for the progress and prosperity of the minorities."

Christians in Islamabad celebrated Midnight Mass in several churches scattered across the city. Strings of multicolored lights adorned trees and were strung across the unpaved alleyways of one of the capital's Christian neighborhoods, where residents shared traditional Christmas cake and children banged drums as they made their way from house to house singing Christmas carols.

Despite the relatively festive mood in Islamabad, the government asked religious leaders to limit religious processions outside their community area, and Christians limited their Christmas Eve processions to within their neighborhoods.

But in Gojra, few feel festive.

Bishop John Samuel, the region's senior clergyman, said Christmas services would still be held.

However, "people are afraid because of this incident also because of this tussle, this tension," he said.

"And also people are afraid from terrorism."

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Associated Press writer Babar Dogar in Lahore contributed.