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Pakistan : Backlash feared in NWFP after release of captives

7/4/08 Pakistan (Compass Direct News) – Just weeks after the release of 16 Christians kidnapped by the banned militant group Lashkar-e-Islam in Pakistan’s northwestern city of Peshawar, a government clampdown on extremist groups in the region has left Christians and locals fearing a backlash.

On June 21, some 16 Christians were kidnapped in broad daylight in Peshawar ’s affluent neighborhood of Academy Town in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP). The Christians, most of them Catholic, lived in a compound that used to serve as a madrassa (Muslim religious school); one of the local Muslims had rented the compound to them.

Militants burst into the compound where the group was worshiping and violently pulled the men into vans along with the Muslim renter of the compound. The militants kicked and punched the men who resisted, local media sources reported.

The Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) government, in power since February, acted swiftly, ensuring the release of the Christian captives within 10 hours and drawing an apology from Lashkar-e-Islam, which the militant group issued in a press conference on June 23.

But the local Christian community is unsure of the sincerity of the apology. Over the spring an unidentified Islamic group sent threatening letters to the Christian community of Peshawar, apologized, and then continued issuing such letters, said Ashar Dean, assistant director of communication of the Church of Pakistan Peshawar diocese, citing one example of “broken apologies.”

The kidnapped Christians and their families have had to re-settle in areas closer to the center of Peshawar for safety reasons.

Seeking Islamic Law

Lashkar-e-Islam has violently enforced a stringent brand of Islamic law in its stronghold in Khyber Agency, a semi-autonomous region between Peshawar and the Afghani border, and surrounding areas.

The new government had made efforts to reduce violence through peace deals with tribes and militants. But all of that changed a week ago, when the government launched the offensive by bombing the home of the commander of the militant group Lashkar-e-Islam Mangal Bagh, dismantling centers of extremist organizations and arresting suspects.

Northwestern Pakistan’s ethnic Pashtun lands are home to militants bent on bringing hard-line Islamic rule to Pakistan , and militancy has been spreading.

Noor Alam Khan, a parliamentarian from the PPP representing Peshawar , said the efforts of the government in the regional clampdown that began on Saturday (June 28) are considerable.

“The PPP tried to negotiate with the militants of that area, asking them to put down their arms, but they do not surrender,” he said.

Still, in the last few days not only have militants been arrested, but abductees have been released, he said, explaining that not only Christians are targeted by militants seeking to enforce Islamic law.

“There’s not only Christians, but even [other] civilians are being threatened, so we have to turn against them and fight them,” he told Compass by telephone. “Cutting throats and killing people and stopping girls from attending schools are not the right things to do. Action should be taken against these.”

He added that groups committing such injustices were acting against the sovereignty of Pakistan and breaking its laws.

Backlash Feared

But locals are not sure of the effectiveness of the operation, reported Pakistani daily Dawn and other local media last week.

Dean of the Church of Pakistan said many believe the military clampdown came as a direct result of the Christians’ kidnapping. The government military action in the NWFP “is considered more of a political move, to subside the government pressure and the international pressure,” said Dean.

Within a week of the kidnapping, he explained, the government attacked the strongholds of Lashkar-e-Islam.

It is not clear whether the Christian community that Islamic militants struck last month in the NWFP will be targeted again. The Christians reported that they previously had received threats to vacate the vicinity, and that Lashkar-e-Islam had warned the Muslim landlord to stop renting to them.

“Christians and other religious minorities are very small in the state of NWFP,” said Ashfaq Fateh, a Christian rights activist in Pakistan . But “among these minorities, Christians have been the hot target since the war on terror was launched.”

NWFP region Christians are often told to convert to Islam or face death. Compass has documented four such cases since May 2007, and there have been other unconfirmed instances.

Christians of the area are relieved that the abductees were returned safely, said an elected local district government leader of Peshawar , Yusef George. “They are happy,” he said.

Some area residents, however, fear that the controlled attack against the militants might not have a lasting impact, nor ensure security for locals and especially for Christians, who fear a backlash from militant groups.

“The situation in Peshawar remains tense, and all the security agencies are on standby,” said Dean, who described the checkpoints at the entrance and exit points of Peshawar . “The Christians are surely in shock and distressed, but all remain faithful to their faith.”

But what is in store for them is yet to be seen, warned Dean. And he said that as the military operation is limited, it is bound to end. The question for him and other Christians is what will happen when the government lets go of pressure on militant groups.

“To be honest, the kidnapping happened so long ago, and so many things have happened since then, now we are thinking of what the consequences will be,” said Dean, who fears the Lashkar-e-Islam may strike back. “They will want to take revenge.”