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Christmas amid inter-faith understanding and terror risks

ICC Note:
Christians are optimistic about celebrating Christmas in Pakistan this year, but Police are still stepping up security to guard against attacks by outlawed Muslim Jihad groups still operating in the country.

by Qaiser Felix
AsiaNews (12/21/06) – Christian and Muslim communities “have co-existed in Pakistan for centuries and throughout this time they have cultivated mutual understanding, especially during religious celebrations. This Christmas is no exception”.

This is what the Bishop of Faisalabad, Mgr Joseph Coutts, told AsiaNews as he described preparations in churches for Christmas festivities. Every parish “is free to prepare for Christmas as it deems best but all invite the local Muslim communities to join their celebrations just as we are invited for Islamic celebrations.”

It is especially in recent times that “proof of mutual respect and understanding has been increasingly in evidence, notwithstanding the fact that Catholics continue to be targeted by terrorists and fundamentalists.”

This Christmas, Mgr Coutts will take part in many parish meetings to which Muslim religious leaders and politicians have been invited. What’s more, “given that the Muslim feast of Eid is drawing nearer with the new year, we will continue to celebrate together for some time”.

The upcoming Christmas celebrations are a focus of preparation across the country. Residents of larger cities have decorated churches as well as private homes, shops and hotels. Most Christian schools have closed down for the holidays and institutes are putting up religious programmes and theatre performances.

However, the festive season is also a tempting target for many banned Jihad organizations in the country, and “this is why we have been forced to step up security in all places at risk,” said Police Inspector General Ziaul Hassan Khan, who has issued orders to all special security groups to enhance security around churches and other Christian places of worship.

He said: “Negligence will not be tolerated: each officer will be responsible for the group he commands and will be answerable for mistakes. Surprise checks will be undertaken to guarantee order throughout the ceremonies.”

About 424 churches in the city have been divided into four categories according to their importance and sensitivity. About 165 churches are practically safe, 83 less so, 42 are at risk and 34 are likely terrorist targets.

More than 1,700 officers have been put on alert to improve security levels: they will ensure around the clock patrols and searches throughout the Christmas celebrations.