05/20/2009, 00.00
PAKISTAN
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Swat Valley: two million refugees on the run, as Caritas Pakistan provides assistance

by Qaiser Felix
The Catholic NGO is providing essential items, planning a sustained effort with the assistance of international partners. Bishop Coutts stresses the need for caution to avoid offending the sensibilities of people of various religions but slams the victimisation of minorities. Christian families are forced out of refugee camps.
Faisalabad (AsiaNews) – Caritas Pakistan, with the help of various international partners, is providing mattresses, fans, field tents and mobile clinics for the two million refugees who, according to the latest United Nations figures, have fled the fighting between Pakistani military and the Taliban in the Swat Valley 

Mgr Joseph Coutts, bishop of Faisalabad and national director of Caritas Pakistan, talks about the work performed by Catholic volunteers, stressing the caution they must display because the area in which they operate is not secure and because they must show extreme discretion given the sensitivities of the various people from different faiths.

“Our mission,” said the prelate, “is to provide, aid, love and assistance to all those in need, as Jesus Christ taught.”

About 300 mattresses and 25 fans were brought to refugee camps in Mardan North-West Frontier Province (NWFP), home to people who fled mountain areas. As temperatures rise (up to 50 degrees C) the emergency situation is getting worse.

Outside the city of Mardan the government has set up two large relief camps, Sheikh Shahzad and Sheikh Yaseen, holding about 20,000 people, a number that is increasing every day.

“With the support of its international partners Caritas Pakistan is sending 2,000 tents to these camps in Mardan to increase capacity. Each tent is enough for a small family. Our international partners will also arrange mobile clinics for these internally displaced people,” the prelate said. .

Problems in the affected area are not recent but date back to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. As Afghan refugees poured across the border the Taliban come to the NWFP. Local Taliban groups emerged in the area, and eventually took it over, creating an emergency situation that deteriorated as soon as the Taliban began enforcing Sharia. After that then open warfare broke out with the Pakistani military.

Religious minorities are among the most vulnerable groups because in addition to the war they have experienced harassment and abuse.

Recently Sikhs have been forced to pay the Jizya, a poll tax imposed on non-Muslims for the benefit of Muslims. In other instances Christian families have been forced out of refugee camps because Muslims did not want them around.

For this reason Caritas Pakistan is acting with extreme caution.

In the meantime, fighting continues between the army and Taliban in various parts of the Malakand division.

In Islamabad the Pakistani cabinet met under the chairmanship of Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani; on the agenda: the law and order situation in tribal areas, the ongoing military operations in Swat and Malakand, and what steps to take in favour refugees.

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