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Monday, 29 October, 2001, 06:17 GMT
Pakistan to probe Christian killings
The mother of one of those killed wails
Terrorists are blamed for the attack which killed 18
The government of Pakistan has announced a thorough investigation into the killing of 18 people at a Christian church in the eastern town of Bahawalpur.

Police and army reinforcements have been patrolling the town's streets of Bahawalpur ever since the massacre.

Police said dozens more were seriously injured when unidentified masked gunmen on motorcycles opened fire indiscriminately on a Christian congregation at prayer on Sunday morning.

Some of them lay down. Some begged for mercy. They didn't listen

Ali Shah, survivor
No-one has so far said they carried out the attack, but officials said members of a banned Islamic group were under suspicion.

The killings have brought condemnation from the spiritual leaders of the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches, as well as Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, who blamed trained terrorists.

Pope John Paul called the killings a tragic act of intolerance.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, referred to the US military campaign in neighbouring Afghanistan, and said everyone should recognise it was not a conflict between Christianity and Islam.

Witnesses say the gunmen shouted "Allah-u-Akbar" and "Graveyard of Christians - Pakistan and Afghanistan", before opening fire.

No mercy

The attack took place during a service attended by more than 100 people at a Roman Catholic church in the town of Bahawalpur, about 100 kilometres (60 miles) south of the city of Multan, in Punjab province.

One witness said six bearded men on three motorcycles rode up to Saint Dominic's Church and pulled out AK-47 assault rifles, shooting a police guard before entering the packed church.

I would... like to assure everyone that we will track down the culprits and bring them to justice

President Musharraf
"They were carrying bags and when they came in they took out guns," the witness told Reuters news agency.

Survivors say the gunmen locked the doors and sprayed fire at the Protestant congregation who were using the church at the time, riddling the walls with bullet holes.

Terrified worshippers are said to have scrambled for cover, some taking shelter in a small room behind the altar, but most were hit.

Pleas for mercy were ignored, witnesses said.

Christians tense

The area has a history of tensions between Sunni and Shia Muslim extremists, and hundreds of Muslims have died in sectarian violence over the years.

But Sunday's shooting, police say, is the first such attack on Christians in the region, which is near the border with India.

Some Christian neighbourhoods had, however, already stepped their security.

The BBC's Susannah Price in Islamabad says there have been fears among the Christian community of a possible retaliation by Islamic extremists following the US strikes on neighbouring Afghanistan.

Christians make up about 1% of Pakistan's 120 million population.

In 1997, Muslim rioters in southern Punjab burned and looted hundreds of Christians' homes and ransacked 13 churches and a school, accusing some Christians of committing blasphemy against the Prophet Mohammed.

The BBC's Jill McGivering
"The pressures on Pakistan have suddenly intensified"
Pervez Hardboy, Peace activist
"It is a very dangerous situation"
Andrew Partare, International Christians Congress
"We've received numerous reports of Christians being harassed"
See also:

28 Oct 01 | South Asia
Analysis: Pakistan's Christian minority
05 Jun 01 | South Asia
Musharraf condemns religious hardliners
16 Oct 01 | Country profiles
Country profile: Pakistan
20 Jun 01 | South Asia
Timeline: Pakistan
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