'Islamization' of Pakistan takes toll on Christians

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ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — In Pakistan, months of violence at the hands of Taliban militants has left Christians on edge, humanitarian aid workers fearing for their safety and the Pashtun culture heavily damaged.

Observers say the stage was set for the violence when Pakistan's former dictator Zia ul-Haq, a militant Sunni, forced the "Islamization" of the country, aggressively pushing an intolerant form of Islam in the 1980s.

Years later, the country's citizens are witnessing a violent uptick in the effort as minorities are targeted as infidels and imams call for their killings.

Pakistani police arrested 13 suspected militants in two raids that they said foiled several terrorist attacks Aug. 24, including a plan to attack several places of worship in Punjab: Shiite mosques, churches belonging to Christians and a place of worship for a sect the government considers not Muslim, The New York Times reported.

The terrorists, with links to al-Qaida and the Taliban, were found with suicide vests and explosives along with heroin, which has been used to finance their terrorist activities. Also Monday, gunmen killed an Afghan television reporter and severely wounded another in northwestern Pakistan.

Recently in Gojra's Christian Colony, in rural Punjab, a Muslim mob heard a rumor that a Christian had desecrated a copy of the Koran, and more than 50 houses and a church were set on fire, leaving at least 14 Christians dead. The rumor later was found to be false.

"Vulnerable minorities are often targeted as a result of petty grievances or property disputes, and Christian Colony residents believe the attack was sponsored by a local businessman keen to take their land," Mustafa Qadri, a freelance journalist based in Pakistan, wrote for The Guardian in London.

"'There shouldn't be a double standard. In our churches and homes ... so many Bibles have been burned,' a local priest said," Qadri reported, adding that the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan believes the attack was premeditated because the attackers destroyed Christians' houses in a manner that indicated they had trained for the assault.

Qadri quoted a report from the International Crisis Group which said religious groups aren't the only ones to blame for the violence. "Sectarian conflict in Pakistan is the direct consequence of state policies of Islamisation and marginalisation of secular democratic forces," the organization said.

Reuters reported that aid workers in Pakistan are seen as high-value, easy targets for kidnappings and killings amid the violence because most of them travel into insecure areas with no armed escorts, responding to the needs of more than 2 million people who have been affected by the war against Taliban militants.

Security fears are affecting relief workers' ability to deliver services, and agencies must review on a daily basis whether they can continue work in specific places, Reuters said. A United Nations worker was shot and killed in a displacement camp and five others were killed when militants bombed a hotel in Peshawar.

Increasingly, aid workers are perceived to be part of a Western agenda in Pakistan, and several agencies have received threats by letter, e-mail or text messages saying they will be targeted.

"Sometimes the threat says they will be bombed if they open their office on a certain day, or that they are targets because their female staff do not conform to ultra-conservative traditional beliefs," an aid worker told Reuters.

As a result, relief workers are trying even harder to keep a low profile and do not advertise their presence. Some agencies even have withdrawn their staff because of security hazards, leaving more responsibility for the Pakistani workers.

The force of Islamization also has caused a distinct difference in the Pashtun culture of Peshawar, which can be seen as literature that once was full of romance and praise for the beauty of nature now reflects the death and explosions that have plagued the country, The Christian Science Monitor reported.

Pashtun culture traditionally revolved around community centers where assemblies of elders were an important part of the lifestyle. Poetry, dancing and other cultural expressions were celebrated, until the attacks increased. One resident told The Monitor he views the violence as an attempt to Arabize the Pashtun society by attacking their culture and their highly revered institutions.

The wave of militancy, The Monitor said, has forced many Pashtun musicians, singers and dancers to leave the tribal areas and Peshawar and seek refuge elsewhere. One well-known singer even moved to war-torn Kabul, Afghanistan, in what The Monitor said was a telling sign of Pakistan's decline.

Young Pakistanis, the newspaper said, have responded to the current events by composing poems expressing their sadness and anger and by using Facebook and text messages to air their grievances.

"We can't expect romance ... or songs for spring and flowers when there is bloodshed all around," Raj Wali Shah Khattak, former director of the Pashto Academy at the University of Peshawar, told The Monitor.

BP


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