• 18 people shot in cold blood • Killers warn of more to come
BY TRACY-JO SMITH
THE C ii1.1.tC11 in PAistan is in a state of dread after the massacre of 18 worshippers in a church last Sunday.
It is feared that Christianity in Pakistan is being driven underground and that the chilling slaughter may be just the start of a bloody persecution of the minority religion.
The victims, including children as young as six years-old, were gunned down in cold blood in St Dominic's Catholic church in Bahawalpur, south of the city of Multan, in Punjab province. Four Islamic terrorists who approached the church on motorbikes burst in and sprayed the room with bullets.
Survivors said the congregation ran for cover, with some cowering under their seats to escape the gunfire.
"Some of them laid clown. Some of them begged for mercy. They did not listen", said Ali Shah, who was injured in the killing spree.
Before they fled, the bearded gunmen, believed to be proTaliban extremists opposed to America's campaign against Afghanistan, reportedly shouted: "Graveyard of Christians — Pakistan and Afghanistan", and "This is just the start."
Condemnation of the massacre was uniform and swift from leaders across the religious spectrum. The Pope called the murders an " evil act" and said he was praying for the victims and their families.
The Pope's office sent a telegram to the Pakistan Catholic Church "expressing his absolute condemnation of this further tragic act of intolerance".
It said "He expresses his prayerful closeness to all affected by this evil act and, as a pledge of comfort and strength, he invokes upon the entire communiry the blessings of almighty God".
The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr George Carey, referred to the US military campaign in neighbouring Afghanistan, and said everyone should recognise it was not a conflict between Christianity and Islam.
The victims of the gunmen were Protestants who were allowed to use the Catholic chunith in an ecumenical gesture of goodwill and Christian aoliclarity.
The area is said to be known for its tensions between Sunni and Shia Muslim extremists, with hundreds of Muslims killed in sectarian violence over the years.
Christians constitute a very small minority of Pakistan's 120 million population, with their presence accounting for only one per cent of the overall population.
Many Christians say they fear for their lives and are cancelling Masses and church services as a result for fear of reprisals.
Fr Nadeen John, of the Commission for Social Communications in Pakistan, said:" The situation is tense: we feel very insecure and helpless. The Government is ready to support us, but they also feel helpless. "Everyone is on tenterhooks because we don't know what America will do next. Although Christianity is associated with
the West, we are Pakistani first and foremost. Christians across Pakistan are petrified. Our past experiences tell us anything can happen",
Simon Barrow, of the Churches' Commission on Mission, said: "Christians and other minorities in Pakistan and India have been under great pressure in recent months and years.
"Now they fear more attacks and incitements. Christians in Pakistan are loyal citizens of that country. They have no responsibility or involvement in the tragic events in Afghanistan.
"They seek to live in peace with their Muslim neighbours. For militants to make them a target for reprisals is wholly wrong". Dialogue with other religions has been taking place with a renewed emphasis on unity. The attack on the Christians has highlighted the tenuous position minorities occupy in Pakistan and the insecurity of their religious liberty. The most troubling issue is the blasphemy law, according to which anyone accused by a witness of insulting Mohammed or Islam can be arrested and condemned to death. Church groups have lobbied the government of Pakistan, requesting the immediate revocation of this law that, in practice, serves as a pretext "to discriminate, even violently, against non-Muslim minorities present in the country".
According to the Christian Evangelical Fellowship, there were seven Christians in prison, accused of violating the blasphemy law.
The most tragic case was that of Ayub Masih, who was accused in 1996 and condemned to death in April 1998. He was sentenced to eight years of forced labour. He has been in prison since 1998, condemned in October 1999 for "slightly offending Islam".
The Christian community has called for a worldwide campaign of prayer and fasting. The Jubilee Campaign is urging all Christians to pray and to consider fasting regularly for their fellow believers living in the Muslim world, who are currently facing escalating threats to their lives, because of the attack.
Julian Filochowski, director of aid agency Cafod, expressed his shock and sympathy in a letter to Pakistan's bishops.
He said: "All the staff at Cafod join me in expressing our shock and extending our sympathy to the many families hurt in this outrage.
"Cafod does understand the particular problems faced by Christians, and other minority groups, in Pakistan and the particular dangers to which you are now exposed during this current international crisis.
"We recognise that the international community needs to give more attention to the needs of the minority and oppressed groups in the region when addressing the undoubted outrages committed by international terrorist groups."
As The Catholic Herald went to press, Pakistani police arrested at least six people suspected of carrying out Sunday's massacre.