ISTANBUL (BP)–Christians in Pakistan’s Swat Valley are caught between the Taliban and the nation’s military as it assaults the stronghold where sharia (Islamic law) is in force.
Nearly 15,000 troops have been deployed in the picturesque Swat Valley in Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and neighboring Afghanistan. Troops came after months of peace negotiations collapsed in April between Taliban Islamist insurgents who have imposed sharia in the valley and the central government. Hundreds of thousands of Pakistanis have fled the war-ravaged area for fear of a full military assault.
On May 10, the army ordered residents to flee Swat Valley during a lull in fighting. Aid groups estimate that as many as 1.3 million could be displaced, according to The Guardian newspaper in London.
Christians are particularly vulnerable in the mass exodus. Working as poor day laborers, they occupy the lowest rung of the social ladder and have little money for costly transportation or for stocking up on resources before fleeing.
“Christians are poor, and like in any conflict, the prices of transportation and commodities skyrocket,” Ashar Dean, assistant director of communication of the Church of Pakistan’s Peshawar diocese, told Compass Direct News. “Some had to go on foot to flee the valley.”
The Taliban had ratcheted up pressure on Christians, other religious minorities and liberal Muslims in the Swat Valley to live according to Islamic fundamentalist norms. They were forced to grow beards and wear Islamic attire for fear of their safety in an attempt to blend in with the region’s Muslim residents.
Many Christians also fled because they had insufficient funds to pay the jizye, a poll tax under sharia paid by non-Muslims for protection if they decline to convert to Islam.
In February the Pakistani government ceded control of the Swat Valley to the Taliban, who imposed their version of sharia and established clerical rule over the legal system. But Christians had seen warning signs long before the formal sharia announcement. In the past year the Taliban burned or bombed more than 200 girls’ schools in the region, including one that housed a Catholic church.
Religious minorities live in a precarious situation in Muslim-dominated Pakistan. The legal system informally discriminates against non-Muslims, and in recent years Christian villages have been ransacked by Muslim mobs incited by dubious reports that a Koran had been desecrated.
The Taliban’s attempts to spread out from the Swat Valley into neighboring areas, however, have increased feelings of insecurity among the nation’s 3 million Christians.
“The threat of the Taliban is a hanging sword above the necks of Christians,” Sohail Johnson, chief coordinator of Sharing Life Ministry Pakistan, told Compass Direct. “Christians could be in the situation where they would have to accept Islam or die.”
A number of Christian families affiliated with the Church of Pakistan (a religious body encompassing Anglicans, Methodists, Presbyterians and Lutherans) are in refugee housing -– a church-owned technical school — in Mardan in the NWFP.
The school dismissed its students for the school year early to make room for the refugees. Opening its doors to the displaced Christians was necessary due to government inaction toward religious minorities, said Yousaf Benjamin of the National Commission for Justice and Peace.
“The government is giving protection to Muslims, but the Christians are through waiting for their services,” he said.
Similar measures are being employed in hundreds of schools. To provide for the massive influx in refugees, the Pakistan government ended the school year early in districts near the Swat Valley and opened the schools to refugees for temporary housing. Teachers also are assisting in the humanitarian relief effort, Benjamin said.
Some Christians have complained of facing discrimination in refugee camps. According to the Christian Today online news site, government relief workers forbade Christians, Hindus and Sikhs from setting up tents or eating with Muslim refugees.
But ultimately Christians will not be able to return to the Swat Valley unless the Taliban threat is completely removed, Christian relief groups said. Otherwise, their possessions and property will always be under threat.
“Christians will face terrible persecution if the Taliban is not controlled by the government,” Johnson said. “They will easily attack churches, schools and other Christian institutions.”
Rehman Malik, Pakistan’s interior minister, has said the military operation would continue until the last Taliban fighter had been ousted. Since April 8, government troops have killed an estimated 751 militants among an estimated 5,000 Taliban militants in the Swat Valley. The government hopes to minimize civilian casualties through precision air strikes and delivering emergency humanitarian aid.
Pakistan’s government has come under harsh national and international criticism for its negotiations with the Taliban and ceding control of the region to the Taliban, fearing the Taliban could seize control of the nation’s nuclear weapons.
Compass Direct News, based in Santa Ana, Calif., provides reports on Christians worldwide who are persecuted for their faith. Used by permission.