Muslims join Christians to mourn church victims

War on Terrorism: Pakistan
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The Independent Online

Pakistan's tiny minority of Christians, most extremely poor, woke yesterday with the knowledge that whenever a fanatic decides to avenge the killing of Muslim innocents by "infidel" bombs in Afghanistan, they will be the target of choice.

The five or six gunmen who attacked St Dominic's Church in Bahawalpur on Sunday, slaughtering 15 members of the congregation and a guard, showed how easy it is.

But at the funeral service held yesterday at the scene of the atrocity, a different aspect of Pakistani religious behaviour was on display: the shocked, bereaved survivors were joined by thousands of Muslims. Bahawalpur is a centre of Sufi devotion, the liberal and mystical Islamic tradition that the puritanical Taliban and their Pakistani admirers loathe and fear.

The 16 bodies – five of them children, four women – were laid out neatly by the church. Christians and Muslims walked inside, weeping and clutching each other. "Those who have killed our people, they do not belong to any religion," said one mourner, Malik Dad Masih. "No religion says that innocent people should be killed."

Father Andrew Francis, the Catholic Bishop of Punjab, led the service. "We are the followers of a man who loves, who sacrificed his life for a noble cause," he said. "We are forgiving those who killed innocent people. But their case will now be heard in the court of God Almighty."

As the service ended, the bodies were taken by relatives to their villages for burial.

Ever since the American-led assault on Afghanistan began, Pakistan's Christians have feared that extremists could seek them out and take revenge for Muslims killed in the conflict. Armed guards have been posted outside Christian churches. But Mohammed Salim, the solitary Muslim policeman on guard outside St Dominic's, was badly outgunned by the half-dozen bearded men who clambered off motorbikes and calmly pulled Kalashnikov assault rifles out of their shoulder bags. He was the first person to die.

One of the gunmen waited at the gate by Mr Salim's body, another lingered in the grounds. Three then went into the church where they randomly fired at the congregation for about five minutes.

Pakistan's President, General Pervez Musharraf, has promised to bring the killers to justice. "My government will do everything possible so that whoever has committed this gruesome act will be brought to book and given exemplary punishment," he said.

Religious freedom is supposedly guaranteed by Pakistan's constitution. But with the growth of Islamic extremism over the past 20 years, that has been at risk. Pakistan's Christians have found themselves at the mercy not only of fanatics but cynics happy to exploit society's pro-Muslim tilt for their own advantage. One group of mourners shouted "Revenge!" and "Blood for blood!" But to most Pakistani Christians, it will have sounded like empty bravado.

* George Bush will meet General Musharraf in New York on 10 November to discuss military co-operation, the White House said yesterday. The meeting will take place on the fringes of the UN General Assembly, which was postponed because of the 11 September attacks. General Musharraf has been calling for an early end to the bombing.