October 29, 2001

 

Christians slaughtered at Pakistan church
By Willis Witter

     ISLAMABAD, Pakistan Bearded gunmen slaughtered a congregation of Christians as they worshipped in their church pews yesterday, leaving at least 16 dead and many more wounded.
     Bodies of small children lay with their mothers and fathers on a bloodstained floor, and bullet holes peppered the walls of St. Dominic's Catholic Church in the town of Behawalpur, 300 miles south of Islamabad in eastern Pakistan.
     Local newspapers received a fax claiming responsibility by an unknown group, "Lashkar Omar," or "Army of Omar," possibly a cryptic reference to Afghanistan's leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar.
     The fax said the morning attack on the church was in retaliation for "attacks against the Muslims and mosques" in the United States, Britain and Europe.
     In the southwestern city of Quetta, meanwhile, a bomb ripped through a passenger bus, killing at least three persons, including two soldiers, and wounding 25 others, police said. There was no credible claim of responsibility.
     Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf said the attack on the church was the work of "trained terrorists."
     "Islam condemns terrorism of every kind, and no Muslim can be involved in such a terrorist act," Gen. Musharraf said.
     Witnesses said four or five masked men on motor scooters rode up to the church, where they pulled assault rifles from bags and started shooting starting with a policeman at the door before storming inside and spraying the congregation with gunfire.
     "There was blood all around me, bodies lying on the ground, people injured, bullets in the walls," said Sister Aina, the principal of a boarding school adjacent to the church. The sister, who uses only one name, arrived moments after the terrorists fled.
     "The whole scene was so horrible that it will haunt me the rest of my life," she said. "Even when the bodies were removed and the injured were shifted to the hospital, the blood on the floor of the church and the bullets in the walls. From now on, whenever I go in this church I will feel this blood and these bullets."
     Christians, who make up about 1 percent of the population in this overwhelming Muslim nation of 145 million, have been fearful of attacks by militant Islamists ever since the Sept. 11 suicide attacks on New York and Washington. Police have been posted at Christian churches ever since.
     In the past, Christian churches in Pakistan have been burned by Muslim extremists, but nothing like yesterday's massacre had ever occurred.
     It raised inevitable fears of yet another front emerging in the war on terrorism, in which Pakistan has backed the United States and severed previous close ties to Afghanistan's Taliban government.
     Lying sprawled on the floor of the church were the bodies of seven women, two children aged 3 and 5, and the pastor, Father Emmanual. Others died later at the hospital. Most of the victims were from the same family.
     "We have nothing to do with what's going on in Afghanistan. We are innocent people," one woman told Reuters news agency.
     A Protestant congregation of about 80 people was borrowing the Catholic church for its services because it has no church of its own. Some people escaped through adjacent rooms. Others lay still on the floor, pretending to be dead until the gunmen fled.
     The bomb in Quetta, apparently hidden under a seat, went off as the bus was passing through a heavily guarded military subdivision, police told the Associated Press.
     In recent months, scores of people have been killed and injured in a series of bomb explosions in Pakistan. There also have been several unsuccessful rocket-propelled grenade attacks on military installations here.
     Quetta is the provincial capital of southwestern Baluchistan province, which borders Afghanistan. In recent weeks, the province has witnessed violent protests by Islamic militants and Afghan refugees opposing the pro-U.S. policies of the military-led government.
     Leaders of Pakistan's Islamic parties claimed the church massacre was part of a conspiracy to slander Muslims.
     Qazi Hussain Ahmed, leader of the Jamaat-e-Islami party, said, "Some terrorist with some negative agenda has done this to blame Muslims. It is a conspiracy."
     Samiul Haq, leader of the more radical Jamiat-e-Ulema Islam party, said, "The CIA has done this to justify its crusades against Muslims."
     Such statements are accepted without question by a generation of young Pakistani militants who idolize Mullah Omar and the Saudi-born Osama bin Laden, the prime suspect in the suicide attacks on New York and Washington.
     A group of 10,000 such Pakistani "holy warriors" have been camped for two nights near the Afghan border, where authorities are blocking their attempts to enter Afghanistan to battle the United States.
     "We must protect our brother Muslims," said one volunteer. "This is the first of the Muslim armies."
     Armed with assault rifles, rocket launchers and even anti-aircraft weapons, the group is led by Sufi Mohammed, who preaches that Pakistan, like Afghanistan, should be a strict Islamic state.