Christians have lived in fear in Pakistan waiting for yesterday to arrive

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The Independent Online

For Pakistan's fearful Christian minority, the only surprise about the murderous raid on a church in Behawalpur yesterday will be that it did not come sooner.

For Pakistan's fearful Christian minority, the only surprise about the murderous raid on a church in Behawalpur yesterday will be that it did not come sooner.

Retaliation against Muslims and mosques in the West after the 11 September attacks in the US had received wide publicity in Pakistan, and Christians were warning that whatever happened in Afghanistan would have consequences for them.

A member of the Church of Pakistan, 15 of whose fellow Protestants were massacred along with a Muslim policeman in Behawalpur, told me before the bombing: "We feel like a target."

The head of the church, the Right Reverend Dr Alexander John Malik, Bishop of Lahore, said: "We have to pray that nothing will happen, but we must also pray that the Americans will take no hasty steps. If they do, we will suffer."

That suffering has now arrived, three weeks into what many Muslims, for all the West's protestations, consider a Christian crusade against their brothers in Afghanistan. And for all the protestations of the country's Christians that they are good Pakistanis who have nothing to do with the fighting across the border, their religion has identified them with the West. A police guard was put on churches around the country soon after the attacks on New York and Washington, but one policeman with a rifle was no match for several gunmen with automatic weapons, bent on revenge.

Unlike Afghanistan, where eight Western aid workers have been held since before 11 September on charges of preaching Christianity, Pakistan has a constitution which guarantees religious freedom. Christians claim that their faith has been practised in the region since St Thomas arrived in the Punjab town of Taxila after AD30. But in a country of 145 million, 97 per cent of whom are Muslim, they have always had to be discreet.

Christians have reached high positions in Pakistan's military and civil service. In the middle-class areas of major cities, many Muslims go to Christian schools, and troops of schoolgirls in a uniform of white shalwar kameez and blue sash are a common sight. But most of the country's 4 million Christians are dirt-poor. In southern Punjab, where they are concentrated – and where yesterday's killings occurred – many were tempted to convert to Christianity to escape the caste system, which lingers in parts of Pakistan despite the principle that everyone is equal under Islam.

Harassment of Christians in Punjab's villages is persistent. Any dispute with a Muslim – most commonly over land but in one notable case over the purchase of ice-creams – can become a religious confrontation; Christians are frequently accused of blasphemy against Islam, an offence which carries the death penalty. Around 2,500 people are said to be in jail or to face charges for blasphemy.

Muslim rioters in Rahimyar Khan, a town in southern Punjab, burned 13 churches four years ago after clashing with Christians they accused of throwing torn pages of the Koran into a mosque. Christians said the Muslims invented the pretext to occupy their land.

The Catholic Bishop of Faisalabad, John Joseph, publicly committed suicide in 1998 in protest against the blasphemy law. Christians charged with blasphemy have been murdered by fundamentalists before their cases reached the courts.

The military ruler, Pervez Musharraf, proposed amending the law last year, but backed off when Muslim groups threatened protests.

General Musharraf condemned the Behawalpur massacre as a terrorist act, and promised to hunt the perpetrators, but pressure against Christians comes in many forms. One reason why a Protestant congregation was worshipping in a Catholic church, and had done for the past 30 years, is that radical Muslim clerics have threatened to bring their followers on to the streets to stop any new Christian places of worship being built in Pakistan.

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