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Pakistan’s religious minorities live in fear

As the Taliban gains a stronger foothold in Pakistan, increasingly violent assaults against religious minorities are further evidence of its growing power and influence.
Pakistan Minorities Under Attack
Qulsoom Riasat at her home in the Christian slum at Teisar Town, on the northern edge of Karachi, Pakistan where a mob of men shouting pro-Taliban slogans attacked the neighborhood last month.Greg Baker / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Fauzia Abrar had finally gotten her crying baby to sleep when screaming men pounded on the steel doors of her home in the mostly Christian slum in the port city of Karachi.

Suddenly she heard shots, and the screaming grew louder: "Long live Taliban! Death to infidels!"

The men forced their way into her house, hurled loose tiles and a glass at her and fired a shot. She fainted.

As the Taliban gains a stronger foothold in Pakistan, increasingly violent assaults against religious minorities are further evidence of its growing power and influence. While the Taliban does not carry out all of the attacks, extremist elements inspired by the group will sometimes act in its name.

These attacks add to the instability of an already highly unstable country and also show how Pakistan, supposed to be a U.S. ally in the fight against Islamic extremism, is now itself increasingly threatened by extremists.

Group: Major increase in threats
In dozens of interviews from Karachi to Peshawar, Christians, Sikhs and Hindus told of attacks and threats and expressed an overwhelming sense of fear. Minority Rights Group International, a watchdog organization, ranked Pakistan last year as the world's top country for major increases in threats to minorities from 2007 — along with Sri Lanka, which is embroiled in civil war. The group lists Pakistan as seventh on the list of 10 most dangerous countries for minorities, after Somalia, Sudan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Myanmar and Congo.

"In Pakistan today there is a lot of feeling of fear by all the minorities," said the Rev. Richard D'Souza of St. Jude Church in Karachi. "We feel we have no protection."

The trouble in D'Souza's parish started with bold blue graffiti on the church walls praising the Taliban and Islamic law, and condemning Christians as infidels. Young Christians in the neighborhood protested.

Within days, about 25 burly men with shaggy beards rampaged through the neighborhood, beating Christians, pelting women with stones and setting fire to the doors of houses and to meager possessions. An 11-year-old boy was killed, and several people were wounded.

"The police never helped. None of us had weapons. The police just stood there," said 26-year-old Imran Masih, who spent 10 days in the hospital after a bullet pierced his neck.

Christians flee
Dozens of Christian families fled. One man who stayed, Sohail Masih, showed what is left of the family's two Bibles and a Sunday school book — a seared and crumbled mass of paper. He had wrapped it in plastic bags and hidden it, in case evidence was ever needed.

D'Souza said the parish is thinking of forming its own armed youth brigades to patrol Christian areas. When he asked the government for armored personnel carriers, he said, two bored-looking policemen showed up for the Easter Sunday service and were gone the next morning.

Shahbaz Bhatti, Pakistan's minister for minorities affairs, said the government is trying to stop the Taliban through military operations.

'They have a genuine concern'
"I don't say minorities are not worried. They have a genuine concern. They have been attacked," said Bhatti, a Christian. "The Taliban say non-Muslims are infidels, and the people who are misguided zealots can interpret this in any way. Minorities can be easy and soft targets of these extremists, but these Taliban are committing such violent acts that everyone feels fear in their presence — the minority and the majority in Pakistan."

Religious minorities represent about 5 percent of Pakistan's 160 million people, according to the CIA World Factbook. But Michael Javed, director of a peace council and a minister in southern Sindh, charged that census takers intentionally keep minority figures low to deny them greater representation. Christians alone represent 5 to 6 percent of the population, he said.

Javed said he has been told by militants to take the cross off his schools in Karachi, but he has refused. Frightened Christians are trying to arm themselves, he said, pulling out a bulging file with more than 60 applications to buy weapons.

"It has never happened in the past like this. Today we feel we have no future. They want us to hide, but we won't," he said.

Even Shiite Muslims have come under attack as the Sunni Taliban tears through the tribal areas. In the past two years, the Taliban has embraced a violently anti-Shiite group, Lashkar-e-Janghvi, unleashing a fresh wave of bitter bloodletting. More than 500 Shiite Muslims in the Kurram tribal agency have been killed in daily attacks.

Editorials in local newspapers have warned of the threat to minorities and predicted that the brutality will eventually reach the larger population. In an April letter to the prime minister and president, Lahore Archbishop Lawrence Saldanha said allowing Islamic law in the violent Swat Valley would give license to "trigger-happy Taliban (and further) erode constitutional protections for minorities and women."

Ultimatum to Sikh families
The Taliban issued an ultimatum in March to the elders of more than 25 Sikh families in the Orakzai tribal agency near the Afghan border: Convert to Islam, join the jihad or pay 5 billion rupees — roughly $62 million — for protection.

"We couldn't pay that amount. We were farmers," said a young Sikh who asked to be identified only as Singh, because he was too terrified to give his full name or location. He fidgeted nervously, and his voice became little more than a whisper as he recalled the Taliban's threat to take a Sikh leader to South Waziristan to decide his fate if the extortion money wasn't paid.

The villagers persuaded the Taliban to reduce the amount to 12 million rupees or $150,000 — still a princely sum for the Sikh community. But Singh said they raised enough money to get their elder released, with a promise to pay the rest by March 29.

On March 28, he said, the Sikhs paid the full amount, and the Taliban promised to protect them anywhere in Pakistan. But by 10 p.m. that day, the Taliban had told Sikh elders they were preparing to attack.

By 2 a.m., the elders had packed everyone into cars and trucks, and more than 150 Sikhs fled to Peshawar, the provincial capital of the northwest.

"What are we to do? We have nothing," Singh said. "We have asked the government of Pakistan, either relocate us to somewhere safe or send us to India."

The lives of Hindus are also in danger, according to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. Last month, extremists attacked a Hindu Holi religious festival not far from the border with India, setting fire to a Hindu temple and destroying several shops. And last year, a young Hindu worker was beaten to death at a factory in Karachi by fellow workers who accused him of insulting Islam.

Although no figures are available, anecdotal evidence and human rights groups say attacks against Hindus have risen in the last two years, with temples and worshippers targeted especially in Sindh province, where Karachi is located.

"We are under more and more of a threat because of these extremists, but we ourselves feel if we take the wrong step, even to tell of the wrong things, then it will be death for us," said Amarnath Motumal, a lawyer and head of the Karachi Hindu Panchayat, representing Hindus. "We worry about the future of our families and our children here in Pakistan — all of us (minorities) do today because of these extremists."