Christians Pressed as Pakistani Military Battles Taliban
Residents flee Swat Valley where fight rages with Islamist insurgents.
By Michael Larson
ISTANBUL, Pakistani Christians in Swat Valley are caught between the Taliban and Pakistan’s military as it assaults the stronghold where sharia (Islamic law) rules.
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 between the Taliban Islamist insurgents who have imposed sharia in the valley and the central government last month. Hundreds of thousands of Pakistanis have fled the war-ravaged area for fear of a full military assault.
On May 10 (Sunday) 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 by the fighting, according to The Guardian.
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 transport or to stock up on resources before fleeing.
“Christians are poor, and like in any conflict, the prices of transportation and commodities skyrocket,” said Ashar Dean, assistant director of communication of the Church of Pakistan Peshawar diocese. “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 Swat to live according to Islamic fundamentalist norms. They were forced to grow beards and don Islamic attire for fear of their safety in an attempt to blend in with Muslim residents of Swat.
Many Christians also fled for 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 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 Swat, including one that housed a Catholic church.
Religious minorities live in a precarious situation in the Muslim-dominated country. 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 Quran had been desecrated.
The Taliban’s attempts to spread out from Swat 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,” said Sohail Johnson, chief coordinator of Sharing Life Ministry Pakistan. “Christians could be in the situation where they would have to accept Islam or die.”
Swat Christians Flee
Approximately 40-60 Christian families lived in Swat as congregants at the Church of Pakistan. But since Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani on April 8 announced a military mission into Swat, nearly all have fled to nearby districts.
Most are in refugee housing in Mardan in the NWFP. They stay in a technical school owned by the Church of Pakistan, a congregation composed of Anglicans, Presbyterians, Methodists and Lutherans
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 Swat and opened the schools to refugees for temporary housing. Teachers are also assisting in the humanitarian relief effort, Benjamin said.
Some Christians have complained of facing discrimination in refugee camps. Government relief workers forbade Christians, Hindus and Sikhs from setting up tents or eating with Muslim refugees, according to online news site Christian Today.
But ultimately Christians will not be able to return to Swat Valley unless the Taliban threat is completely removed, Christian relief groups said. Their possessions and property will otherwise 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, the interior minister, said Pakistan’s military operation would continue until the last Taliban fighter had been ousted. Since April 8, government troops have killed an estimated 751 militants.
There are believed to be 5,000 Taliban militants in 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 Swat. They fear the Taliban could seize control of the nation’s nuclear weapons.