Religious minorities endure bloody tradition

QUETTA, Pakistan and LONDON - The slaughter of Christians by Muslims in Pakistan yesterday continued a bloody tradition in which the country's religious minorities have repeatedly borne the brunt of sectarian violence.

Most of Pakistan's Hindus were killed or driven out at the time of partition from India in 1947, leaving a few hundred thousand Christians as the largest non-Muslim group.

Remnants of communities started by Christian missionaries under British colonial rule, the Christians have learned to stick together, living in so-called colonies for protection and keeping their religion secret.

Things that might identify them as Christians, like a crucifix necklace or an obviously anglicized first name, have to be hidden, especially at times of instability.

During periods of heightened insecurity, their communities are among the first to be attacked by militant Muslims. They have been bracing themselves since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Yesterday's killings are the latest in a chain of religious violence between Christians and Muslims stretching from Nigeria to the Philippines.

The Koran may urge Muslims to honour Christians as a "People of the Book" but relations between the two faiths are at a low ebb as the conflict stirs historical animosities.

In the wild frontier region of Baluchistan, the 20,000-member Christian minority has acted like a punching bag throughout periods of turmoil.

Even before the attack in Bahawalpur, a Quetta lawyer who gave his name as "Shamoun Patrick" for fear of using his real name, said he had moved his family into a safe house inside the city after threats from Muslims.

"Where my family live in the small village of Nawa Killi, the local mosque announced attacks on Christians last week," Mr. Patrick said. "This is a serious threat and so we have all left."

He rarely leaves home now without his well-thumbed copy of the New Testament and, in private, he can be found consulting the scriptures for inspiration.

One woman who did not want her name published said Pakistan's Christian community faces persecution in every walk of life.

"The government does not make jobs available to us," she said. "We cannot open shops and the system in Pakistan is against Christians."

Muslim militants have already burned down buildings run by UN charities in Quetta, presumably because they suspected them of being connected to Washington.

Elsewhere in the world, long-standing conflicts have taken on religious undertones. Indonesia, the most populous Muslim state, has been the scene of Asia's most bloody fighting between Christians and Muslims.

Resentment between the two groups on the Maluku islands, fuelled by years of government-sponsored Muslim immigration, boiled over in 1999. Muslim groups sent reinforcements to their co-religionists on the Christian-dominated islands. The ensuing battles left 5,000 dead.

Nearby in the Philippines, Muslim rebels in the south of the country have been fighting a separatist war since 1968. The government launched an assault on the most radical of the guerrilla groups, the Abu Sayyaf group associated with Osama bin Laden.

In Nigeria, tensions between Christians and Muslims have boiled over periodically into bloody communal riots. In Sudan, Christian and animist southerners are engaged in a guerrilla war against the Muslim government in the north.