August Issue 2015

By | News & Politics | Published 5 years ago

It has been three years since Yaqub Masih first started going to the courts to pursue the case of his missing son. Young Isaac Samson, a 27-year-old staffer of Good Samaritan Hospital run by a Korean NGO, Agape Medical Service, had gone missing in February 2012 in what is believed to be a kidnapping case. At the last hearing, on May 31, 2015, the court once again reminded the Karachi Police’s crime branch of their duty to locate Samson’s whereabouts. Once again, the court was informed that a new investigation officer had been assigned to the case.

“Half-a-dozen investigation officers have come and gone during these three years but no one has managed to make any progress,” says Yaqub Masih.

Police officials have thus far managed to piece together the following story: the kidnapping took place when armed militants intercepted a van carrying hospital staff. The attackers actually wanted to kidnap Korean nationals working in the hospital, but when they didn’t find any of them there, they took away two employees, both Christians, with the aim of demanding ransom money from the Korean organisation running the hospital.

“One of the captives, Indrias Javed, managed to flee by jumping off the truck carrying the two men outside Karachi. But Samson has been taken away to some unknown place,” claims a police officer associated with the case.

It might seem that this is just another case trapped between police apathy and want of evidence, but it isn’t the only unresolved mystery related to the beleaguered Christian community.

The wounds of Rimpa Plaza, too, remain fresh. In September 2002, seven employees of Idara Amn-o-Insaaf, a Christian community-based organisation housed in Rimpa Plaza, were shot in the head. Just three months before that, Edwin Noon, the chairman of the organisation, was gagged and poisoned. Edwin’s wife, Sara Edwin Noon, took over as chairperson but had to flee the country after receiving multiple threats. The organisation had to halt the social work it had been doing for decades in the face of this clear and present danger. Other Christian charity groups had to follow suit and curtail their activities.

The Rimpa Plaza attack was significant for many reasons. It was the first time workers of a charity organisation run by members of the Christian community had been targeted in such a manner. The organisation was notable for its social activism on the blasphemy laws and its abuse. It had worked with labour organisations to create awareness among the workers about their rights and published a monthly, Jafakash, for promoting their causes.

A noteworthy example of Idara Amn-o-Insaaf’s activism is the free legal assistance it provided to the Anjuman Mazareen-e-Punjab (AMP — the Tenants Association of Punjab) in the early 2000s when it was fighting for land ownership rights, mostly notably against the military in Okara.

That is why, when the organisation was attacked in 2002, in which seven workers were killed, there were different accounts about the motive behind targeting it.

In a post 9/11 era, when militant outfits were banned and their activities monitored in Pakistan, there was a sudden rise in the attacks on members of the Christian community, their places of worship and various institutions run by them. Between September and October 2002, attacks on churches in Bahawalpur, Taxila, Daska and Islamabad resulted in the deaths of 24 people while six people were killed in an attack on a Christian missionary school in Murree.

Robin Sharif, the only survivor of the Rimpa Plaza incident, believed the attack was motivated by the organisation’s

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publications on the flaws and abuses of the blasphemy laws. Police officials believe that militant organisations linked to Al-Qaeda were behind the attack, but others are not so sure.

The AMP rubbish the official account, and have their own version of the possible grounds for the attack.

Aqeela Naz, a leader of the AMP, blames the army for the attack since Idara Amn-o-Insaaf had been handling the cases of the tenants pro bono. Six tenants at farms in Renala Khurd have also been killed for demanding ownership rights. A leader of the Mazdoor Kissan Party was similarly dismissive of the official version. He maintains that, “most of the outspoken tenants fighting for their rights have been hauled up on the spurious charge of being RAW agents.”

However, a social activist and former employee of Idara Amn-o-Insaaf didn’t agree with that rather controversial accusation. “I don’t think the killings had anything to do with their legal assistance to the peasants of the AMP as there were many other organisations such as the Pakistan Institute of Labour and Education Research (PILER) and political groups such as the Labour Party  of Pakistan working with them,” she says.

“One can see the trend of attacks on Christians in those days. Various jihadi splinter groups had attacked churches and other institutions linked to the community,” she adds, referring to other attacks in those days.

A political worker from the Awami Workers Party (AWP), who has worked closely with the AMP campaign, recalled the charged environment at the time. “The military dictator, Pervez Musharraf, had come forward in support of the highhandedness of the Rangers and was hurling accusations against those collaborating with the tenants. So if someone from the AMP pointed to a possible army role in the gruesome attack on Idara Amn-o-Insaaf, it should be seen in that context.”

For seven long years after the attack, the law-enforcement agencies were unable or unwilling to track the perpetrators. Then, in February 2008, 10 militants were picked up from Karachi and a further three from Lahore in April. All of them were affiliated with a relatively unknown faction of the Tehrik-e-Islami Lashkar-e-Muhammadi (TILM) and reportedly confessed to their involvement in the attack.

It took less than a year for the case against TILM to unravel. The militants implicated in the attack were released after judicial proceedings revealed flaws and inconsistencies in the investigation. The next breakthrough came in 2012 when then DSP CID, the late Chaudhry Aslam, rearrested one of the militants released earlier and claimed he had made the same confession again. Few were inclined to believe it was the end of the matter. A journalist said, “When the police make an arrest and are desperate for headlines, they link it to a high-profile incident.”

Meanwhile, the Christian community continues to suffer feelings of insecurity. A human rights activist says, “Every violent incident has deprived us of our social space and feeling of safety. Our organisations cannot work without fear and members of our community are clamped with false blasphemy charges, which in most cases are aimed at settling personal feuds or acquiring land.”

Thousands of Christians have fled Pakistan and have applied for political asylum in different South Asian countries. A young pastor serving at a local church says, “Karachi has gone through many cycles of violence on the basis on ethnicity and sect but there was hardly any mob violence against Christians. The blasphemy laws were rarely used to settle personal scores, despite the prevalence of other discriminatory practices. In recent years, this has changed.”

In September 2013, a Christian gold scavenger, Boota Masih, was stabbed to death by a fellow worker Muhammad Asif, who accused him of blasphemy. Police sources linked the accusation to a personal dispute between the two men. In another incident in the same month, homes of Christians were attacked and burned by angry mobs in Michael Town in Korangi after Christians protested against the bombing of a church in Peshawar. Activists of a religious organisation, Anjuman Naujawanan-e-Islam (ANI), accused the protesters of pelting stones at a nearby mosque.

Even though officials allowed the Christians to return home, it resulted in further hardship for the community. The name of the colony was changed to Khulafa-e-Rashideen Colony, which is the name of the mosque that the ANI had accused the protestors — without any proof — of stoning.

In such circumstances, it is no wonder that the Rimpa Plaza killings, and so many other cases involving Christians, are so cavalierly handled by the police.

This article was originally published in Newsline’s August 2015 issue.

Ali Arqam main domain is Karachi: Its politics, security and law and order