`Christian Taliban' take up arms

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The Independent Online
CHRISTIANS IN Pakistan are turning to violent militant movements in a bid to counter increasing sectarian attacks and discrimination. Community leaders fear this may lead to a civil war with Muslims.

Several Pakistani Christians claim to have infiltrated hardline Islamic movements and to have spent months in training camps in Pakistan and Afghanistan learning guerrilla tactics. Others have joined the "Christian Taliban" or called for the formation of armed defence organisations modelled on extremist Muslim groups.

Christians suffer severe discrimination in Pakistan. They are effectively barred from many jobs, frequently harassed by the police and, in cities,confined to ghettos. Pakistan's blasphemy laws, which imposedeath sentences for slandering Islam, result in frequent false accusations against them, many of which are upheld by the courts. Physical attacks are common, too. Earlier this year, a bomb was planted in a cathedral in the southern port city of Karachi.

Father Bonnie Mendes, a senior community leader, said Catholic church elders were deeply worried by the trend towards violence. "Young people are being forced into the hands of extremists who believe guns and bombs are the only way," he said. "We have to stress the way of peace, justice and love. The [government] has to face up to realities and make changes, as we're heading for a very dangerous situation."

For some, however, the time for direct action has already come. One Christian from Faisalabad claimed recently to have been one of 35 Christians from all over Pakistan who had pretended to be Muslims so as to be trained by two extremist Islamic organisations.

Calling himself "Simon Mujahid" (freedom fighter) - mirroring the aliases taken by Muslim extremists who believe they are fighting a holy war - the man, in his 30s, said he had taken up arms because Christians in Pakistan needed to be able to defend themselves. "Two other men came with me from Faisalabad and we spent several months training in the camps. Since coming back we have bought weapons so we are ready for any attack," he said.

Mujahid said that he decided that violence was necessary when the Catholic bishop John Joseph committed suicide in Faisalabad last year to publicise the case of a Christian sentenced to death for slandering Islam by supporting the British author Salman Rushdie.

A local reporter said he had visited Mujahid in the Christian ghetto in Faisalabad and had been shown a cache of automatic weapons and hand- guns.

There are other signs of the growing militancy among the Christians. In Peshawar, the north-western city on the border with Afghanistan, religious leaders have formed a "Christian Taliban". The movement's aims are unclear but appear to be a mixture of self-defence and, in a clear copy of the original Taliban, the enforcement of a harsh moral code.

Even leaders of the community have been hinting at the use of force. Last year, Alexander Malik, the Bishop of Lahore, called for volunteers for a new organisation called the Sipah-e-Masiyah (Defenders of the Messiah). Two of the most feared Islamic organisationsare the Sunni Muslim Sipah- e-Sihaba and the Sipah-e-Mohammed, which claim to fight for the rights of Shia Muslims. Sources among church elders in Lahore said last week that the Sipah-e-Masiyah were "ready and waiting".

Hardline Islamic groups have been linked to dozens of murders and bomb blasts. Thousands of people have died in sectarian violence in Pakistan over the past five years. Last month, Sunni gunmen killed 17 worshippers at a Shia mosque, sparking a spate of tit-for-tat murders.

The government has instituted special anti-terrorism courts but neither these, nor a series of extra-judicial killings by police, appear to have had any effect. Critics say the government's bid to make Islamic law supreme has heightened religious feelings and increased intolerance.