Christians hunker down in Pakistan

PESHAWAR, Pakistan — St. John's Catholic Church locked its steel gates for the first time yesterday and five city policemen, armed with AK-47 assault rifles, moved into the church compound.

One day after unknown gunmen sprayed a Sunday church service with automatic weapons fire, killing 16, the Rev. Yaqub Shahzad fears that life will never be the same for the 15,000 Christians in Peshawar, a city of 4 million.

"Already after the American bombing we've been living [in] fear," he said. "Now, this fear has risen to new heights."

In Washington, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher described the slaughter as "awful" while noting that Pakistan has increased security at churches and promised a thorough investigation.

"We strongly condemn the terrorist murders," he told reporters. "We hope that the perpetrators are brought rapidly to justice."

In Islamabad, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf also condemned the attack, saying, "Islam condemns terrorism of every kind, and no Muslim can be involved in such a terrorist act."

And in the southeastern town of Bahawalpur, more than 300 miles away, St. Dominic's Church buried its dead.

Women, many of them survivors of Sunday's massacre, wept over white shrouded coffins, each with a simple cross painted in red.

"Those who have killed our people, they do not belong to any religion," mourner Malik Dad Masih told the Associated Press. "No religion says that innocent people should be killed."

The attack on a Protestant congregation that was borrowing St. Dominic's Roman Catholic Church was the first massacre in the history of Pakistan's small Christian community.

Fourteen worshippers, their minister and a Muslim police officer guarding the church were slain by gunmen who shouted, "Graveyard of Christians — Pakistan and Afghanistan," and "This is just a start."

"They had no mercy for the children. They had no mercy for the women. They could see that small children were being hit by bullets, but they kept firing," said Shamoon Masih, 34, a worshipper who carried several children out of the church after the attack before passing out from his wounds.

There was no claim of responsibility, but intelligence officials told AP that members of a banned Islamic group were under suspicion.

Pope John Paul II called the killings an "evil act" and a "tragic act of intolerance" and offered prayers to the victims' families.

In a Muslim nation where it is illegal to convert to any religion other than Islam, Christians all are descended from families that were converted by missionaries three and four generations ago.

They comprise a separate castelike class, living in cramped urban ghettos separated from Muslim neighborhoods by high brick walls.

"They think we are Americans or Europeans. They don't make the distinction that we are Pakistanis," Father Yaqub said.

On the other side of Peshawar lies a neighborhood of parishioners in which families with five and six children crowd into tenements of one-room brick homes along a maze of narrow dirt alleys.

"At this stage, things are still peaceful," said Hafiz Bibi, 25, a housewife. "But we worry about the future. Now we have to worry about our lives."

"We live in constant fear," said Makhan Masih, 50, a local government clerk.

As they spoke, a woman a few houses away finished baking bread on top of a kerosene stove. The neighborhood Catholic elementary school let out and the tiny path between the houses filled up with children, seemingly unaffected by Sunday's events.

But for their parents, it was clear that the entire community feels suddenly under siege.

"It may happen to us as well," said Samson Sharif, 26, another government clerk.

The unspoken fear is that the raging hatred of America will somehow become entangled with Christianity.

Since the United States began bombing Afghanistan Oct. 7 in a bid to crush Osama bin Laden and his terror network that is believed responsible for the suicide attacks on America, militants have taken over downtown streets in Peshawar with almost daily demonstrations.

Yesterday was no exception, with a militant student group rallying several thousand children and teen-age boys.

"Listen, Osama. We are with you. The only solution to America is holy war," crooned one speaker, putting his poem to song. His lyrics hung in the air amidst the ear-splitting roar of the crowd as it yelled, "Death to America. Long live Osama."

Back at St. John's church, Father Yaqub said he is especially worried about Fridays, the Muslim day of rest — a day when anti-American demonstrators typically mass following afternoon prayers.

"The Muslims march through the city, and I'm afraid we could be attacked," he said.

Yesterday morning, he set aside a room at the church compound, a room overlooking the steel gate, where the five policemen could live while on duty 24 hours a day.

"I told the police it was not enough. We need at least a dozen men here," Father Yaqub said.

Muslim rage has also hit his flock in other ways.

"Because of their fear, people have already stopped going out to work in jobs like sweeping office floors, working in restaurants or as servants for rich people," Father Yaqub said. "Now, they are coming here because they can't eat."

The church is already feeding more than 100 neighborhood people, including children from destitute families, with monthly supplies of staples such as flour, sugar and cooking oil.

Since Sept. 11, another 40 families — at least 300 people — have applied to the church for food, a number he expects to rise as the full effect of Sunday's massacre hits.