View from Pakistan
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ANDREA CATHERWOOD: One by one, 15 in all, the white coffins with their red crosses were lined up outside St. Dominic’s church. Just yesterday, the dead were worshipping inside at a Sunday service, when gunmen sprayed this sanctuary with automatic fire, killing 14 worshippers, their minister, and a Muslim police officer trying to guard them. Today 5,000 mourners arrived at the same church for their funerals. Among the dead, five from one family: A mother, father, and their three children.
Survivors told how they cowered under pews to escape the bullets, while the Catholic bishop of Punjab preached the biblical principle of turning the other cheek and forgiving those who killed the Christians as they prayed. But under the symbol of the cross, a minority chanted for revenge. “Blood for blood,” they shouted, “we will repay them in kind.” No one has admitted carrying out the massacre, but security officials suspect a banned Islamic group. It’s been deplored through much of Pakistan. Many Muslims have rallied around the tiny Christian community.
TARIQ BASHIR CHEMA: Every Pakistani, they are condemning this incident. This is very, very tragic, unfortunate, and we all condemn it.
ANDREW CATHERWOOD: This is the worst Christian massacre in Pakistan’s history.
JIM LEHRER: Ray Suarez talked with New York Times correspondent John Burns, in Islamabad, Pakistan this afternoon.
RAY SUAREZ: John, let’s start with that massacre of Christian worshippers. Do the authorities in Pakistan have any leads, any idea who might have done this?
JOHN BURNS: Well, they left no calling card– no surprise there. Some anecdotal evidence given to me in the church yesterday, a few hours after the massacre: The attackers would be… Or at least three of the six of them were certainly bearded, long beards, which is in itself a kind of marker for Islamic militancy in this country.
Interesting also that Bahawalpur, the city in the Indus River Valley where this occurred, is also the hometown of one of the most militant, and I might say brutal, of the Islamic militant leaders of Pakistan, Maulana Masood Azhar, who was blamed by the Indians recently for an attack on the legislature in Kashmir in which 40 people died. That was about three weeks ago. So plenty of, if you will, circumstantial evidence pointing at Islamic militants.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, given the situation in Pakistan right now, why would Christians be a target?
JOHN BURNS: In the best of times, Christians in Pakistan are a somewhat persecuted minority. There are about two million in a population of 140 million. And they have been targeted over the years, particularly in the years since the anti-Soviet Jihad in Afghanistan, which radicalized Islam and Pakistan. They’ve had their villages burned, and they’ve had their schools burned and destroyed. They’ve had their homes destroyed. This was different.
This was the first time that armed men have done it in church and committed a massacre of this kind. And the answer clearly lies across the border in Afghanistan. This was the immediate and universal assumption of everybody I met in the church yesterday after the massacre. One lady, a nurse who had escaped the massacre by dint of visiting her parents yesterday morning instead of going regularly to church, said the Americans are attacking Afghanistan, and Afghanistan is an innocent country.
America is a predominantly Christian country, and that makes us a target for revenge. That was, generally speaking, the view, and I don’t think there’s much doubt about that. I think even to a person in Pakistan, General Musharraf has reached the same conclusion.
RAY SUAREZ: Returning to General Musharraf, he has said that Pakistan is in with the coalition till the bitter end, but seems to have more and more trouble on his hands as each week passes in the domestic scene.
JOHN BURNS: He does indeed. He was a very nervous person, Musharraf, when he made this commitment about five days after the suicide hijackers hit the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and he’s somewhat steadied the ship since then. He has reshuffled his army high command, which has meant his own position is a good deal more secure.
I think it needs to be borne in mind that the trouble that there has been– and it has been widespread — has so far been confined mostly to the Islamic militant groups. They’ve managed to get thousands of people into the street– as many as 50,000 on one occasion. These are not great crowds by Pakistani standards. In the elections, in the democratic days of Pakistan, it was common to see crowds of a million in the street.
I think what he fears is that this unrest amongst Islamic militants could spread into the general population if the bombing continues, and if targeting errors and pilot errors continue to cause civilian deaths through what the Pentagon calls collateral damage. And that’s why he’s asking for a quick end to the bombing campaign.
RAY SUAREZ: Even though you appear to be agreeing with the general’s notion that this is still a small minority of his countrymen coming out publicly in support of the Taliban, what about broader sympathy? Is there still a lot of feeling among rank-and-file Pakistanis that now it’s starting to be a big power beating up on a small one?
JOHN BURNS: You know, it’s a very ambivalent thing, and it’s something you find very widely in Pakistanis. They agree, with some passion, that what happened on September the 11th was an outrage that any sovereign nation has to seek redress for. In that sense, they understand the need for American military action in Afghanistan.
And there’s a general understanding that General Musharraf had not much choice to support that. On the other hand, they are Muslims and the overwhelming majority, and they are worried about fellow Muslims dying as a result of a war which, in the case of all non-Taliban Afghans, they had nothing to do with.
RAY SUAREZ: John Burns from Islamabad, thanks a lot for being with us.
JOHN BURNS: It’s my pleasure.