By Jawad Mazhar, BosNewsLife Special Correspondent reporting from Pakistan
with additional reporting by BosNewsLife's Stefan J. Bos
RAWALPINDI, PAKISTAN (BosNewsLife)-- Pakistan's military and the militant Taliban group clashed in the country's strategic Swat Valley Wednesday, May 6, adding to fears among minority Christians and forcing thousands of civilians to flee the area.
Some 40,000 people reportedly fled the city of Mingora in northwestern Pakistan and officials said a further half a million others were expected to leave as well. Wednesday's clashes came shortly after the Taliban threatened to expand Sharia, or Muslim law, far beyond Swat Valley and reports of massive Muslim attacks against minority Christians, including murder and rape.
Since late April, militants of the Taliban group executed at least two residents in a Christian neighborhood while one child died during a crackdown on believers who protested against the Talibanization of Pakistan, local Christians and rights investigators confirmed to BosNewsLife.
United States-based International Christian Concern (ICC), which investigates cases of persecution, said the incidents happened April 21, in Taseer Town near the city of Karachi, where Christians protested against pro-Taliban messages "chalked onto the walls of two churches."
Earlier, on the outskirts of Sargodha, a key city in Punjab province, a Christian young man was shot and killed and another Christian boy sexually molested by at least one suspected militant, although his links to the Taliban could not be established, family sources said.
On April 19, Adeel Masih, 20, was "sprayed with bullets" after returning home from work in Marrium Town near Sargodha, and died of his injuries at a local hospital, said his father Iqbal Masih. At the same time a suspected Muslim militant, identified only as Israar, allegedly raped a 10-year-old Christian boy, Waseem Sabir, in a field of Marrium Towm, residents said.
The man apparently managed to flee, but police promised to investigate both cases. Elsewhere, a nine-year-old Pakistani Christian girl was gang-raped and murdered on April 9, Christian right investigators said. Nisha Javid was reportedly abducted while walking near her home in Punjab's Essangri village. Her battered body was found two days later in a canal, but local Christians say police has been reluctant to detain suspects. Another Christian girl in her early teens was gang raped by Muslim men twice in as many months here in the village of Gumhe-k-Lidhur near Punjab's main city of Lahore, according to local residents.
Ambreen Munir 13, a daughter of an impoverished Christian laborer and a house wife, was allegedly kidnapped twice since February by Muslim youth, who took her to a lonely neighborhood where they apparently raped her for several hours. It came on the heels of another incident in the village of Chak # 39 NB where impoverished Christian carpenter Tariq Masih 19 was murdered because of his relationship with a 17-year-old Muslim girl, his maternal uncle, Allah Ditta said.
Churches and rights investigators have accused the Taliban of encouraging its militants and other Muslims to attack Christians, including minors, in several parts of the country. In one of the latest incidents, some 400 angry Muslims armed with clubs, iron rods and firearms attacked homes of Christians and accused five Christian villagers of desecrating the Koran, seen as holy by Muslims, villagers said.
Eyewitnesses told BosNewsLife the May 1 incident happened in the village of Harappa in a remote part of Punjab, considered a hot-bed for Islamic extremism. The violence broke out after police detained a Christian man Ashfaq Gill April 28 on suspicion of "tearing and desecrating" the Koran, Christian villagers said.
Soon after, Harappa police detained four other Christians, identified as Naseer Gill Madhauv, Imran Gill Naseer, Harris John Emmanuel Hero, Israar Wilson Inyat-Ullah and Ghulam Freed, under Pakistan's controversial blasphemy legislation, Christians said. Villagers went on saying that police also accused all five Christians of bursting into the Girls High School of Harappa and "desecrating the Book of Koran" there during theft.
However the ‘All Pakistan Minorities Alliance’, a major advocacy and political group, denied wrongdoing saying all five detained Christians are its political workers in the area.
Rights groups have urged the government to investigate these incidents and arrest those responsible, amid allegations of reluctance among police to detain suspects. Federal Minister for Minorities and head of APMA Shahbaz Bhatti told BosNewsLife he would "make sure that culprits responsible for this showdown are booked and justice is served" including to the five Christians against whom blasphemy charges have been leveled.
Yet, with the Taliban gaining ground in Pakistan, extremism is spreading and Christians are among minorities with little influence in this predominantly Islamic nation, rights groups warned.