Church bombing alarms minority

Sunday's deadly attack on a church in the Pakistani capital, which killed five people and wounded more than 40, has put the minority Christian community on a state of high alert. The killings have also embarrassed the government in its efforts to curb Islamic militancy and improve its international image to gain crucial investment and development funds.

"We think this was a retaliation by pro-Taliban elements in Pakistan," minority leader Shahbaz Bhatti, head of the Christian Liberation Front party of Pakistan, told IRIN on Monday.

"This has caused insecurity, disappointment and frustration amongst the Christians," Bhatti said about the grenade attack on a Protestant church in the high-security diplomatic quarter of the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, in which a US Embassy employee and her teenage daughter were killed.

Ten Americans were among the 45 people injured in attack - about 400 yards from the US Embassy in Islamabad, one of the most heavily-policed areas of the city.

Pakistan interior [home] ministry officials told IRIN that sectarian attacks have increased dramatically in Pakistan since 12 January when President Pervez Musharraf launched a crackdown against hardline Islamic groups to curtail violence and improve ties with the West.

Pakistan's interior minister, Moinuddin Haider, told CNN that the attack may have been "to give a message to the West" by "those people who are against this war against terrorism."

However, Christian rights workers and residents said the latest attack on the minority community showed government's inability to prevent extremist violence and curb the groups, who had been supported for years by the government.

"This is indeed a message from such groups to the Pakistani government and the West, but why should Christians be paying a price for that?" Bhatti asked, explaining that 15 Christians were killed by random shooting in a Church in the Pakistani town of Bhawalpur on 28 October.

At the time government officials and church groups linked the attack to militant groups retaliating against US-led coalition bombing of the Taliban rulers of Afghanistan.

Another Christian leader Cecil Chaudhry told IRIN from the port city of Karachi that it had been long expected that religious extremists would strike back with dramatic attacks against foreigners, Western interests or government facilities in Pakistan.

"But providing protection is government's main responsibility and it has not been able to do so," he added.

Security officials told IRIN on Sunday, an hour after the deadly attack, that they themselves were surprised about the attack in such a 'tight-security area' of the city. "Its too early to say who is responsible for this act but whoever they are will not go unpunished," a senior police official at the crime scene told IRIN.

He said the recent kidnap and slaying of Wall Street Journal correspondent Daniel Pearl and the massacre of minority Shi'ite Muslims in the nearby city of Rawalpindi last month, was also part of an extremist campaign to embarrass Musharraf and undercut his support in the West. Cash-strapped Pakistan is heavily dependent on foreign funds for its financial obligations. Its US $1.83 billion development budget is mostly foreign-loan based.

"We realise this has raised serious questions about security in the country," one interior ministry official said. "The president has called a very high level meeting to discuss these very issues that relate to law and order and security of foreigners and religious minorities." he added.

According to the Pakistani police in addition to the Americans, 12 Pakistanis, five Iranians, one Iraqi, one Ethiopian and one German were injured in Sunday's attack. The injured also included Sri Lankans, Afghans, Swiss, Britons, Australians and Canadians.

Since the 12 January crackdown on Islamic fundamentalists more than 2,000 people have been arrested, although many have since been released.