By JOHN F. BURNS
BAHAWALPUR, Pakistan, Oct. 28 — At 8:50 a.m. today, on a bright autumn Sunday in this Indus Valley town, three young men with Kalashnikov rifles walked into St. Dominic’s Roman Catholic Church just as the last part of the liturgy, known in the old English version as “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace,” was being sung in Urdu. A group of 35 Pakistani Protestants who borrow the church for their services, weddings and funerals were just preparing to go home.
Taking up positions on the aisle, the intruders opened fire across the jute mats where the worshipers stood segregated in the unordered clusters that form in a church without pews. Women were to the left, men to the right, in the habit of a church that has changed little since the first British missionaries arrived in the 18th century. The killers fired on automatic.
The worshipers had almost no chance. Blood went everywhere, forming large pools against the walls, beneath shattered stained- glass windows.
Sixteen worshipers died, including seven women, three children and the Protestants’ 45-year-old pastor. A toll like this has been almost routine in other sectarian killings in Pakistan, mostly involving Sunni and Shiite Muslims, but today’s was different. Never before had men opened fire in a church indiscriminately, according to Christian leaders who rushed here afterward.
Their theory, uncontested among the hundreds of Christians who flocked to the church for a remembrance service tonight, and shared even by Muslim clerics and Hindu sadhus who came to express sympathy, was that the killers were acting to avenge the American bombing of Afghanistan.
“The Americans are attacking Afghanistan, and we are Christians, and America is mostly a Christian country, and so it is a matter of revenge,” said Elizabeth David, a nurse at the railway hospital in Multan, 55 miles north of here.
Islamic militant groups have been staging anti-American protests across Pakistan for weeks, and nobody at the church doubted that the protests had boiled over into something far more sinister. Their fear, voiced repeatedly, was that these killings were only the start.
No group claimed responsibility for the killings, but survivors said they knew of no other motive. Several militant groups are based here in the state of Punjab.
But who ordered and carried out the attack took second place tonight to the grief for those killed, and the horror of their final moments. Survivors described one killer as arcing his fire to follow survivors of the first volleys as they fled forward to the sanctuary of the vestry, peppering the wall behind the altar with automatic fire, pitting the concrete on either side of the crucifix.
Another was yet more pitiless. As mothers fell on daughters and big sisters on smaller ones, he marched forward until he stood above a pile of wounded and dead and pulled the trigger again and again until the screaming and the moaning stopped, according to survivors.
The dead included nine members of one family — Jamshed Akhtar, a government clerk, his wife, Rifat, and five of their children, as well as Jamshed’s brother Javed and his wife, Nargis. Seven others were critically wounded, including three children with multiple bullet wounds.
The killers, and three more men who stood sentry outside after killing a policeman at the church gates, roared away on motorcycles into this city of 500,000 people. They left no calling card, no shouted slogans that might convey their cause, and in a country with millions of unlicensed Kalashnikovs, no ballistics evidence that might help track them down.
But the survivors insisted that they knew who the killers were, as did the nuns and priests, the bishops and the catechists and the altar servers, just about everybody else who crowded into the church tonight.
As another plaintive old English hymn translated into Urdu rang out, the bodies of the dead, including 3- year-old Hinna, the youngest casualty in the Akhtar family, lay before the altar.
Those who blamed Islamic militants said it was not just the beards of the attackers, at least one of them said to have been long and straggly, just like Osama bin Laden’s, just like those worn as a kind of banner of defiance by Islamic extremists who have branded their hatred for all things they associate with the western world, especially America, and especially Christians and Jews, into the life of Pakistan.
It was, said survivors and other Protestants from the neighborhood whose luck had them elsewhere on Sunday morning, the moment in history — the fact that America, a predominantly Christian country, was at war with Afghanistan, a Muslim country whose border, at its closest point, lies barely 350 miles northwest of Bahawalpur. There, three weeks ago, American bombs and missiles began falling on the Taliban protectors of Mr. bin Laden, wanted by America for the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
But even before some of the American bombs in Afghanistan began missing their targets, killing innocent Muslims, in fact right from Sept. 11, Christians in Pakistan, perhaps two to three million among 140 million Muslims, were afraid for their lives. And if they were not at the outset, Islamic militants made sure they soon were. Slogans were painted on the walls of Christians’ homes, and churches: “We will kill you!” or “Leave now, or die!”
Although the country was carved out of India in 1947 to be a homeland for Muslims, the Constitution contains provisions against religious discrimination. But in practice, non- Muslims face extensive discrimination under the country’s laws, and, in the case of Christians, widespread incidents of violence.
Mrs. David, 45, the nurse, was one of many who linked the massacre to American military operations in Afghanistan. She and her husband, Pervez David, 46, an engineer at an oil refinery in Multan, traveled here today by train through the fields of cotton and mango and sugar-cane that flourish along the banks of the Indus and Sutlej rivers.
To the east of Bahawalpur lies the Cholistan Desert, and beyond the desert, Pakistan’s arch-rival, India. Some of those in the church tonight thought that today’s evil could have come across that desert, like the camel trains that still ply the ancient trade route across the unmarked border. India has often been accused by Pakistan of fomenting trouble here, and some survivors of the massacre suggested that the attack could have been inspired by India.
But most saw it like the Davids, who said they had taken their two girls, aged 12 and 6, out of convent school in Multan after the first threats of violence in September. Standing barefoot on the church’s bloodied mats, the couple agreed that the killers were Islamic militants, but disagreed on where ultimate blame should be laid.
Mrs. David said the better-educated Muslims at the hospital where she works supported the United States, but a large majority of others did not, saying President Bush had failed to show proof that Mr. bin Laden was responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks.
That, she said, was deceitful. “Bush gave proof,” she said. “When the planes hit the World Trade Center, thousands were killed, and the Muslims know that it was Osama bin Laden who did it,” she said.
Mr. David disagreed. “The trouble started when President Bush called America’s war on terrorism a crusade,” he said. “That means going back to the conflict between Saladin and Richard the Lionheart, that means the revival of history, that means it’s East against West, Islam against Christianity. And in Pakistan, it means Muslims against Christians.” After a pause, he added, “And that means jihad.”
Copyright 2001 New York Times Company