05/15/2009, 00.00
PAKISTAN

Swat Valley: Catholics pray for peace as the country faces an exodus of Biblical proportions

by Qaiser Felix
Unanimously Christians, Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs condemn Taliban violence. In Faisalabad bishop leads a prayer vigil for peace. The number of refugees could reach 1.5 million. Some 60 Christian families find refuge in Peshawar.
Faisalabad (AsiaNews) – Pakistan Catholics are praying for peace in the Swat Valley and safety for the refugees fleeing fighting between the army and the Taliban. Muslims, Christians, Hindus and Sikhs have condemned the violence by Islamic extremists whilst the country tries to cope with the largest mass exodus in its history.

Last week the Pakistani government launched what it described as a “final offensive” against Islamist militias holed up in the Swat Valley, blaming them for breaking a peace deal that enabled them to introduce Sharia in the area in exchange for a ceasefire.

Since Islamic law was implemented the extremists began a violent campaign of persecution against minorities, summarily executing people, blowing up girls’ schools and women’s institutions.

At present, thousands of people have abandoned Mingora, the Swat Valley’s main town, as well as the neighbouring districts of Kanju and Kabal, after the army lifted a curfew.

Army sources reported 124 militants and nine soldiers killed in the past 24 hours. That would take the death toll to 870 militants and 45 soldiers. However, this could not be independently verified.

In the meantime Pakistan’s Catholic community is mobilising in favour of peace. Yesterday more than hundred Catholic women took part in a peace vigil in Faisalabad led by the local bishop, Mgr Joseph Coutts, and Fr Nisar Barkat, director of the National Commission for Justice and Peace.

Although “prayers are key” for peace, it is important “to condemn extremism,” the prelate said

When the vigil was over Catholic leaders issued a statement calling on the government to end the military operation as soon as and to help those displaced by the fighting.

Activists and civil society groups are organising themselves in a sign that civil society is not asleep but is wide awake, raising its voice against he Talibanisation of Pakistan, the bishop noted.

Mgr Coutts added that he recently attended a meeting organised by NGOs that invited people of different faiths. Christians, Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs were present and together they strongly condemned the Taliban and backed the military in its struggle for peace.

The ongoing displacement of people is the largest since Pakistan was founded in 1947.

According to the United Nations agency for refugees about 834,000 internally displaced persons have been registered so far after they fled violence in the Swat Valley, but if the fighting continues the total number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) could top 1.5 million.

For the UN agency around US$ 5 billion are needed to rehabilitate IDPs in a process that could take up to five years.

Among the refugees there are some 60 Christian families who fled Taliban persecution following the introduction of Sharia.

They are currently housed at a shelter set up in Rasalpur, near Peshawar, capital of the North-West Frontier Province.

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