Two masked assailants attacked a small Pakistani Protestant chapel service in northern Punjab on Christmas night, killing three young girls and leaving 13 other children and their parents wounded.
Some 40 Christians were gathered for a special children’s Christmas program on December 25 in the one-room Presbyterian chapel in Chianwali, a remote village about 40 miles northwest of Lahore. Around 8:30 p.m., attackers concealed in women’s burqas suddenly burst through the door and threw a bag of explosives into the room.
The two youngest victims, six-year-old Najma Masih and ten-year-old Shumaila Masih, died on the spot, while 15-year-old Razia Masih died en route to the Sarah rural health center. An estimated 2,500 mourners gathered the following afternoon for the funeral and burial of the three girls in the village cemetery.
Nine of those wounded by the explosion and shattered glass were hospitalized at Gujranwala’s district hospital. Punjab provincial officials announced that the cost of their medicines and treatment would be covered at government expense, along with promised compensation to families of the victims.
The four most critically injured survivors, three adults and a teenage girl, were transferred to Lahore for treatment at the Mayo and General Hospitals. All are in stable condition and expected to recover, a representative of the U.S. Consulate in Lahore who visited the four injured Christians told Compass today.
One woman among those hospitalized does not yet know that her daughter died in the attack, and one of the men wounded severely in the face is not expected to recover the use of an eye.
Despite heightened security measures ordered this week to protect Christmas celebrations in churches across predominantly Muslim Pakistan, no policeman was on duty at the Chianwali service. Three local police officers were suspended today by the deputy inspector general of police of Gujranwala for negligence in the incident. “That is the normal thing they do, you know, just to pacify people,” a local source commented.
“Of course, there was no police guard that night,” fumed a Christian clergyman, interviewed by telephone as he returned from the Chianwali funeral yesterday. “But of course now there is an entourage of police from all over the Punjab there, maybe 20 police vehicles!” he told Compass.
Initial media reports indicated the attackers had thrown a hand grenade into the one-room chapel, but senior police official Shahid Iqbal later told Reuters that pieces of metal or shrapnel had not been found in the church. “It was some kind of an explosive device,” Iqbal said. After the explosion, “There was smoke and a strange smell, like that of chemicals,” one eyewitness said.
Pakistani police promptly arrested a local Islamist cleric later that night, telling the media that Mohammed Afzal was “believed to have instigated the attack,” although they had no evidence yet of his “direct involvement.” In the First Information Report (FIR) filed in Satrah against Afzal, the fiery Muslim preacher was said to have made hateful remarks against Christians in a mosque sermon in Daska district, not far from the attacked church.
Afzal reportedly told his congregation that “it is the duty of every good Muslim to kill Christians,” Daska police officer Nazir Yaqub told the Associated Press. “Afzal told people, ‘You should attack Christians and not even have food until you have seen their dead bodies,'” Yaqub said.
According to local Christians interviewed by The News today, Afzal and his followers had attacked the Presbyterian chapel three months ago, throwing stones and threatening the congregation. Although Satrah police were notified of the incident, “they did nothing except giving a strict warning to Afzal and his accomplices,” the sources said.
Another five arrests have been made, including Afzal’s son Attaullah, who is alleged to have trained in an Afghan terrorist camp. All those detained are open supporters or alleged members of the Jaish-e-Mohammed (Army of Mohammed), Islamic militants fighting Indian rule in disputed Kashmir. The violent group, which has ties to the al-Qaeda terrorist network, is now banned in Pakistan, where its founder has been under house arrest in Bahawalpur since December 2001.
Eyewitnesses quoted by The Daily Times today accused Afzal of harboring an Afghan-trained Jaish-e-Mohammed militant named Rashid, accused of being the “main culprit” in carrying out the Christmas night attack.
The December 25 bombing was the sixth terrorist attack against Christians in Pakistan in the past 15 months. A total of 42 Pakistanis have been killed and another 88 injured in the targeted attacks against Christian churches, schools and hospitals in Pakistan, in apparent retaliation for the Pakistan government’s support of offensives by the “Christian West” against Afghanistan’s former Taliban regime and the al-Qaeda movement.
Barbara G. Baker
Copyright 2002 Compass Direct / 27 December 2002
[Compass Direct has become www.worldwatchmonitor.org – 19.08.2016]