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Christians furious over church massacre

Gulf News Online Edition

 Christians furious over church massacre

Lahore | By Abdullah Iqbal | 29/10/2001

Christian groups reacted with fury yesterday to the unprecedented attack in a Bahawalpur church in central Punjab where 18 Christians were gunned down while attending a church service.

The incident took place in the southern Punjab town which has seen sectarian violence, but never  an attack on the tiny Christian community in the area.

According to eye-witnesses, "screams of women and the wails of children filled the air as worshippers fell to the ground."

One witness, Asif Samuel, told Gulf News, "Even as I watched, the man besides me fell to the ground and blood appeared all around him."

Samuel said that the man was Bobbi‚ a neighbour and fellow Christian, but was uncertain if he was among the 18 dead, including at least four women and four children.

Shahbaz Bhatti, head of the Christian Liberation Front (CLF) described the attack as "completely barbaric" and demanded protection for Christians across the country. He also held that "we had warned earlier of increasing animosity to Christians, but no one took heed."

Other groups representing the interests of Christians were also angered. Dilawar Peter, of the Christians Welfare Forum commented, "This is all the result of failing to crack down on religious extremism. Now even the peaceful Christian community is not safe."

It is believed that religious groups, holding Christians responsible for the ongoing campaign against Afghanistan, had decided to target the usually peaceful community within the country.

Harassment and violence against Christians is relatively rare, but the interpretation of the campaign in Afghanistan as a "war between Christians and Muslims" could change this.

"We do not know which group could be involved. They were well equipped with weapons, and we are on the search for them" a senior police officer said.

Dr Altaf Malik, medical chief at the Bahawalpur Central Hospital where the many wounded are being treated, said, "We have around 20 people under care, while others have returned home."

One of those killed was a policeman, Mohammad Saleem, posted near the church. All the others who died were Christians, and the process of identifying bodies and handing them over to families, was continuing  last evening.

"We are sure the attack was carried out by extremists of some religious group, and we are now taking steps to offer greater protection to Christians," Haris Ikram, the Bahawalpur police chief, said, while adding the attack was "totally unexpected."

Christians are the largest minority community in Pakistan where 97 per cent of the population are Muslims.

A wave of panic ran through the Christian community in Lahore  and other cities following the attack on the Bahawalpur church.

At Fazlia Colony, an area that houses many poor Christians in the city, a phone call was made to several houses in the area, stating a bomb had been planted.

Local youth immediately formed vigilante groups and searched the area. An attempt was also made to summon the police, but one resident, Rehman Masih, complained that they failed to get response.

"We called at the local police station, but we were ignored. We are used to this. The police routinely treat us as second class citizens," he complained.

© Al Nisr Publishing LLC - Gulf News Online


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