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BosNewsLife – Christian aid workers rushed to areas in Pakistan Tuesday, October 11, amid fears the death toll of the region’s worst earthquake in recent memory could rise to 40,000 and reports that the Christian minority is being persecuted there.

Many people also died in India and Afghanistan , countries that also suffered under Saturday’s quake with a magnitude of 7.6 on the Richter scale along the Pakistan-India border. Its epicenter was near the town of Muzaffarabad , almost 60 miles (90 kilometers) northeast of Islamabad in Pakistani-controlled Kashmir .

Pakistani officials said earlier over 30,000 people were known to have died in the earthquake, with tens of thousands injured. There were also reports of 23,000 dead, but the Voice Of America (VOA) quoted doctors as saying that figure could be “twice as high.” India reported more than 600 deaths. The death toll was expected to rise as rescuers reached remote villages.

Religious rights group Barnabas Fund warned it was especially concerned that because “Christians are a despised minority in Pakistan and endure discrimination in many forms” they are “likely to be shunted to the end of the queue as regards meeting their practical needs after a disaster.”

Barnabas Fund, which also provides aid to the region added it has appealed for help because of “the knock-on effects of the earthquake on the Christian minority,” in countries such as Pakistan where churches have been bombed and Christians have been imprisoned on what human rights watchers describe as “trumped up charges” of showing disrespect to the Koran.

“In time of disaster it is often Christian minorities who suffer the most, either because of neglect or because of deliberate discrimination,” said Barnabas Fund International Director Patrick Sookhdeo. “The Pakistan earthquake will have knock-on effects on Christian communities in the region; earthquake victims are likely to find help for themselves at the expense of the Christians. Therefore we need to be concerned for our Christian brothers and sisters at this time,” Sookhdeo said in a statement to BosNewsLife.

Barnabas Fund said it established that during the “December 2004 tsunami and the January 2001 Indian earthquake…anti-Christian discrimination” was “commonplace.” It stressed that “when the USA attacked Afghanistan in late 2001, Afghan refugees streamed over the border to Pakistan and took the jobs of Pakistani Christians, leaving them destitute.”

Other Christian organizations, including Jubilee Campaign USA , said it also cooperated with a local organization to provide aid to a devastated area in especially northern Pakistan . Christian Aid UK said its staff members, who felt Saturday’s tremors even in Delhi , India , and the Afghan capital, Kabul are also “urgently trying to assess the situation so that a quick and effective response can be made.”

Christian Aid’s Asia head, Robin Greenwood, said that besides problems with communications networks, there were also difficulties with communications among peoples. “There are further complications. South east Afghanistan is a conflict zone. US forces are fighting Al Qaeda and Kashmir is an area of dispute, tension and military activity between the Pakistani and Indian forces. It is vital that in both these areas that relief work takes precedence over conflict,” he said.

Despite the difficulties, churches in Pakistan and across the border were trying to help victims. The president of the Pakistani bishops’ conference Archbishop Lawrence Saldanha of the Pakistan city of Lahore described the earth quake as “the greatest natural disaster in our country’s history.”

In a letter published by Catholic media, he urged Christians “to do their part” in relief efforts. He reportedly asked them to contribute one day’s salary to the President’s Relief Fund and announced a donation of 500,000 rupees (US$8,357) from the Pakistani Catholic Church.

Father Sebastian Kalapura, principal of St. Joseph School in Baramula, in India’s Jammu and Kashmir state, told reporters the devastation is “very visible” in villages along the road between Srinagar, India, and Muzaffarabad. The priest had accompanied a team of the Catholic group Caritas India to Uri, one of the worst-hit areas on the Indian side of the Line of Control that divides Kashmir between India and Pakistan .

Although the two nations have fought over the disputed territory since they gained independence together in 1947, Father Kalapura said he and his workers “are trying to help people on two fronts [with] health and shelter.” Other Catholic agencies have also pledged assistance.

In addition impoverished native missionaries, who human rights watchers say have been persecuted, are also involved in aid, BosNewsLife established, Tuesday, October 11.

“Native Pakistani ministries report that thousands of homes, schools, mosques and government offices have been destroyed,” Christian Aid Mission (CAM), which supports the native missionaries, told BosNewsLife. “In addition, telephone lines, electricity and the water supply have been disrupted,” the group added.

However “immediately following the earthquake, Sarla Mahara, South Asia director for Christian Aid Mission, contacted several indigenous ministries in Pakistan …They had already begun helping the many injured and homeless but need financial assistance to continue meeting the great number of needs,” CAM said. Other Christian mission groups such as Gospel For Asia (GFA) are also active in the region, BosNewsLife learned.

Pope Benedict XVI was among other Christian leaders expressing concern Sunday, October 9, and urged the world to be “swift and generous” in dispatching aid to those effected by Saturday’s earthquake. “I pray that the international community will be swift and generous in its response to the disaster,” the Pope told the faithful gathered in St. Peter’s Square in Vatican City for his weekly blessing.