Even as Taliban forces released hostage Reginald Humayun Zaheeruddin, general secretary of the Church of Pakistan, on January 2, five more Christians were kidnapped in the regions bordering Afghanistan.

"It's the same group who [President Pervez] Musharraf has said killed [former prime minister Benazir] Bhutto," said the Rev. Canon George Conger, who has been reporting on the Anglican-affiliated Church of Pakistan for more than a decade. "The Taliban will release those five men if six Taliban militants are released by the police."

Pakistan's breakdown of law and order, which Bhutto warned about before her assassination on December 27, particularly harms Christians, who make up a mere 3 percent of the country's population. "Prominent Christians—these [hostages] are all professional men—are being singled out by the Muslim militants in this battle with the government as being soft targets," Conger said.

Bhutto's death has complicated the already precarious situation. According to Joshua T. White, a graduate fellow at the Institute for Global Engagement who lived in Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province for 10 months, the nation is undergoing a complex power struggle. "What you have is the army, the Islamist parties, and in the third position these neo-Taliban who are based in Waziristan."

White said Pakistani Christians appreciated Bhutto's platform of greater freedoms and democratic participation, but they were disappointed with her previous stints as prime minister. "[I]n truth [Bhutto ended up] not doing a lot for advancing women's rights or minority rights," he said.

Mano Rumalshah, the Church of Pakistan's bishop of Peshawar, said that unrest in the country has not directly involved Christians, who, being mostly rural and from lower classes, lie outside mainstream politics. "In one sense we are too small to impinge on the political battles that are going on in the country," Rumalshah told CT.

More concerning for Christians than the outcome of the campaign for prime minister, scheduled for a vote in mid-February, is the increasing strength of radical Islamic groups, White said.

Furthermore, it's unlikely that even Bhutto could have stopped the degeneration of minority rights and basic safety in Pakistan, said Nasir Saeed, director of the U.K. branch of the Centre for Legal Aid Assurance and Settlement, which offers legal assistance to Christians in Pakistan. Saeed said whichever political party comes to power in February will have to include Islamists in its coalition.

"If any party comes into power with the support of the religious political parties, I don't see any change in the situation of Christians," he said. "The Christian position will remain the same. It can get worse, but it won't get better."

Demands for a stricter, Saudi-style Islam have already pushed blasphemy laws into Pakistan's civil code, endangering Christians and other minority groups. Nina Shea, vice chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom and director of the Center for Religious Freedom at the Hudson Institute, said the legal process enforcing these laws is fatally skewed.

"When a Christian's testimony is always [worth] half that of a Muslim's," Shea said, "they always lose."

Blasphemy laws and other such infringements on Pakistan's status as a secular nation, along with increasing lawlessness, cause many Christians to look to the army for stability.

"However much I or others may hate military rule in Pakistan, our history so far is that military rule has been more benevolent to the people than political rule," said Bishop Rumalshah. "That is a very hard assessment and hard thing to accept, but it is factual for the ordinary street people."

Besides, Rumalshah said, the worst threat to Christians is social pressure, not political tensions.

"Physical survival is becoming difficult day by day because the job market is closed to the Christian community and other minorities," he said. "This is the best way to suffocate and decimate people. Turn the tap off, and you don't need to kill."

Related Elsewhere:

Our recent coverage of Pakistan includes "Disenfranchised in Pakistan" and "Remembering Benazir."

Joshua White wrote CVP article "Living With Islamists," about his experience in the North-West Frontier Province of Pakistan.

George Conger's news stories about Pakistan and the Church of Pakistan are available on his blog.

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