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Terrorists targeted ‘cradle’ of Pakistani Christianity

WASHINGTON (BP)–The Aug. 9 terrorist attack on a Presbyterian mission hospital in Pakistan was particularly devastating to local believers because it occurred in a place seen as the home of a Christian community pre-dating the Islamic religion that now dominates the region, CNSNews.com reported Aug. 14.

The hand grenade attack on nurses leaving a chapel at the 80-year-old Christian eye hospital in Taxila, near Islamabad, cost the lives of four women, all Pakistani staff members.

It was the fourth in a series of attacks against Christian facilities in the country since last October. In the earlier attacks, 16 people were killed during a church service in Bahawalpur; five — including two Americans — in a church in Islamabad; and, on Aug. 5, six at a Christian school in the north.

Although the death tolls in each of the previous incidents was higher, the attack at the hospital was tantamount to a strike against “the very root of Pakistani Christianity,” said Patrick Sookhdeo, who heads Barnabas Fund, an international organization working among Christian minorities under Islam.

Although the hospital is run by Presbyterians, he said Aug. 13, the whole Christian community was hard-hit.

The ancient city of Taxila is regarded as the cradle of Christianity in the region.

Pakistani Christians believe their ancestors were baptized by Thomas, Jesus’ “doubting disciple,” who is said to have traveled to southern Asia after the resurrection and to have died there. In Taxila, as one Karachi clergyman put it, “St. Thomas planted the seeds of Christianity.”

In Catholicism, St. Thomas is a patron saint of both India and Pakistan, as well as of blind people. The Taxila hospital specializes in treatment of eyesight problems.

Archeologists discovered in 1953 what is believed to be a second-century cross in Taxila, a find considered as evidence of the existence of a Christian community there five centuries before Islam was founded.

The “Taxila cross” with four distinctive equal-length arms, was adopted as the symbol of the Church of Pakistan — a denomination resulting from a 1970 union of Anglicans, Lutherans, United Methodists and Presbyterians — and is kept at the church’s cathedral at Lahore.

Sookhdeo, an authority on Islam and Christianity, said Christianity in the area survived until the 14th century, “but was then eliminated by Muslim armies who apparently forced the Christians to convert to Islam on pain of death.”

It was reintroduced two centuries later by European missionaries, a development that still today connects Pakistani Christians to the West in many Muslims’ minds.

“Because of this European connection, today’s Pakistani Christians face a constant struggle to prove to Muslim critics that they are loyal citizens of their motherland, and not in league with the West,” Sookhdeo said.

That was why the discovery of the Taxila cross, and the evidence it provided of an indigenous Christian presence, was so important.

Christians make up less than 2 percent of Pakistan’s predominantly Muslim population of more than 140 million.

Sookhdeo said many local Christians were fearful of the future and felt international interest would quickly wane because Westerners were not among the victims of the latest two attacks, both in the first half of August.

Pakistan’s president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, said Aug. 14 in an address marking the 55th anniversary of Pakistan’s independence from Britain that “an insignificant minority has held the entire nation hostage,” the Associated Press reported.

“The recent attacks, especially directed at the worship places of our Christian brothers, are the most shameful and despicable examples of terrorism,” Musharraf said, describing Pakistan as “at the forefront of the international war on terrorism.”

Musharraf pledged to strengthen security throughout Pakistan and noted that militants involved in the latest attacks “have been killed or arrested.”

“There are no quick-fix solutions to sectarianism and extremism,” Musharraf said. “We have to act in a systematic manner to meet this menace” and “root out those who are maligning our religion and tarnishing the image of Pakistan while imagining themselves to be ultra-Islamic.”

The Presbyterian hospital in Taxila, founded in 1922 by an American doctor, provides eye care and other medical services to tens of thousands of patients a year, the vast majority of them Muslims.

The facility’s administrator, Joseph Lall, said Aug. 9 it appeared that all Christians in Pakistan were being targeted because of a perceived association with the West.

Another possibility being considered by some is that the attack may be partly in response to a recent move by Musharraf to increase political representation for Christians and other non-Muslim minorities.

The decision is the latest step in removing a separate electorate system first introduced in 1985, which allowed minorities to vote for their own representatives but left them feeling politically marginalized.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom earlier urged the Bush administration to press this issue with Musharraf, who announced last January that the separate electorate system was being abolished.

Pakistani Christians welcomed the decision, although for many an even more serious concern relates to blasphemy laws which human rights groups say have been widely abused by those with personal disputes against non-Muslims.

The controversial law provides for the death penalty for anyone convicted of insulting Islam or Mohammed. No executions have yet been carried out, although a number of death sentences have been handed down.

The All Pakistan Minorities Alliance, an organization representing Christians, Hindus and other minority groups, plans to observe Aug. 15 as a “black day” to protest the recent killings.
Goodenough is the Pacific Rim bureau chief with www.CNSNews.com. Used by permission.

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  • Patrick Goodenough