BY STAFF REPORTER
A PAKISTANI archbishop has written to the country’s president and prime minister to protest against the introduction of Sharia law in northwestern Pakistan.
Archbishop Lawrence Saldanha of Lahore said the decision gave legal sanction to the “dictates of the triggerhappy Taliban”.
The government allowed Sharia law to be introduced in the Swat region as part of a peace deal with Taliban militants.
But following the agreement last week Taliban fighters began to push out from Swat to ambush a convoy of soldiers only 60 miles from the country’s capital, Islamabad.
The ambush forced the soldiers to retreat and left Buner, a city of about 650,000 people, in the hands of the Taliban.
The move heightened alarm among western leaders, with American Secretary of State Hilary Clinton accusing the Pakistan government of “basically abdicating to the Taliban and extremists”.
Meanwhile, Sam Zarifi of Amnesty International said the government had left the 650,000 residents of Buner, particularly women and children, “at the mercy” of the Taliban.
In his letter, sent before the attack on Buner, Archbishop Saldanha said: “We note with sorrow that your government has failed to take stock of the concerns of civil society in Pakistan in your decision.” He said that “besides jeopardising the socio-economic and cultural growth in Swat and Malakand” the decision had also given legal sanction to the “dictates of the triggerhappy Taliban”. He added that the resolution “erodes constitutional protections for minorities and women”.
The archbishop said minorities in the area were “forced to endure unemployment, intimidation and migration”, adding that St Mary’s school, convent and chapel in Sangota, as well as the Don Bosco school in Bannu, had been bombed. He pointed out that Christian, Hindu and Sikh families had been forced to flee because the Taliban imposed jizya, a tax levied on non-Muslims living under Sharia.
Archbishop Saldanha said that “religion has to be regarded as a personal matter and should have nothing to do with the affairs of state”.
The archbishop and Peter Jacob, executive secretary of the bishops’ justice and peace commission, signed the letter.
Other Christian leaders also criticised the government for approving Islamic law in Taliban-controlled areas.
Prince Javed, a Christian member of the North-West Frontier provincial assembly, told UCA News it was unclear how courts ruling on Islamic law would affect Christians.
Javed, also president of the province’s chapter of the All Pakistan Minority Alliance, said that “only the constitution” could safeguard minorities.
A catechist from Peshawar, the provincial capital, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the only Catholic church in the city cancelled its Easter and Christmas celebrations because of threats from the Taliban.
President Asif Ali Zardari signed the regulation that allows Sharia law in some north-western districts earlier this month after it was approved by Parliament. In February, the government of the North-West Frontier province reached a peace deal with Taliban militants who had been fighting for 18 months to impose Islamic law. The new regulation brings six districts, including the Swat Valley, under the Pakistani Taliban’s strict interpretation of Shariah, or Islamic law.
Pakistan’s opposition parties were also becoming increasingly alarmed last week at the Talibanisation of northern parts of the country. The opposition leader, Nawaz Sharif, urged the government to contain the militants within Swat.
Maulana Fazlur Rahman, the leader of the pro-Taliban Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam party, warned the national assembly: “If Taliban continue to move at this pace they will soon be knocking at the doors of Islamabad.” But the army spokesman, General Athar Abbas, said that western fears were “overblown” and called for patience in dealing with the militants.