In what looks like a bid to extend its influence in the South Asian region, IS militants have allegedly distributed 12-page pamphlets in the north-west of Pakistan, in Peshawar and in Afghan refugee camps based near its outskirts.
Written in Pashto and Dari, and titled Fatah (Victory) the editor’s name, however, appears fake and their place of publication obscure. For a long time, Afghan resistance groups, including the Haqqani Network, Hizb-e-Islami Afghanistan and the Tora Bora group have published similar pamphlets, magazines and propaganda literature in Peshawar’s black markets. However this latest spread has raised fears of a possible link between IS and such militants, threatening all non-Muslims.
As the Islamic State declared a caliphate in areas of Iraq and Syria, Pakistan launched a joint military offensive to end a ‘caliphate‘ apparently set up by a Pakistani Taliban cluster of over 35 groups, Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in north Pakistan’s lawless tribal areas along its Afghan border. A number of the local and foreign militant groups said they wanted to “strive for the enforcement of Islamic Shariah not only in Pakistan and Afghanistan but throughout the world”.
The attack against them by the Pakistani Army started in mid-June, but air attacks (including by helicopter gunships) continued into August. Today September 3rd, it said it has killed at least 910 suspected militants since June. North Waziristan Agency has long been considered an epicentre of international terrorism and was virtually ruled by the TTP, since the central Pakistani government has lacked will to establish its writ.
In the wake of this full-fledged military offensive called Zarb-e-Azb, meaning the “sharp strike with the sword of Prophet Muhammad,” at least 700,000 residents of North Waziristan have been internally displaced while another 75,000 to 100,000 have crossed into Afghanistan. Pakistan is already home to the largest displaced population of Afghans, 1.6 million refugees.
More than 52,000 Pakistanis have been killed in terror attacks since 9/11. There have been about 5,000 bomb blasts and 400 suicide bombings but Pakistan has remained reluctant to conduct an operation against the Taliban. According to the Pew Research Center, 58% of Pakistanis view the Taliban unfavourably, while only 8% have a favourable view of them.
The U.S. has long been urging Pakistan to conduct an operation against the Taliban in the tribal regions. Pakistan conducted a joint military operation in April 2009 in the area of Swat. The army generals were ready to launch a full offensive on the Taliban in North Waziristan but the then military chief feared a backlash from the religious right and delayed the operation.
A commentary by analyst Michael Kugelman in the Wall Street Journal sees the operation as too little and too late. He believes that the entire success of the operation depends on Pakistan’s willingness to eradicate all militant factions without considering any of them what he calls “good,” and useful against neighbouring countries.
Fleeing for their lives
Most internally displaced people have fled to Bannu, about 65 kilometres from North Waziristan. Among them are about 1,200 Christians who first stayed in the Anglican mission-run Pennell High School and Girls’ College, and John Bosco Catholic School. Now all of them have been relocated to the compound of the Catholic Church of the Holy Name.
The region’s Minority Workers’ Society President Khalid Iqbal, told World Watch Monitor that most of the Christians had fled from Miramshah and Mir Ali.
“We continuously walked for more than 24-hours to reach Bannu because curfew was lifted only for a day…The first two weeks there was no government set-up in Bannu to help us, but the Church of Pakistan provided us with food and shelter.”
Bishop Peters S. Humphrey of the Peshawar Diocese told World Watch Monitor that as soon as the government’s military operation was announced, the church readied arrangements for North Waziristan’s Christians in Bannu.
“We could not leave our people in the lurch, and we also opened our doors for all minorities. There are about 12 Hindus and four Shi’ite families living along with the Christians.”
Iqbal said the registration process for people who are internally displaced was slow which is why most of them hadn’t yet received the government monthly financial support of 12,000 Pakistani rupees ($120) when he spoke to us. He said due to the shortage of cots and beds, most of them were sleeping on the ground – fearing possible snakebites as well.
However, Bannu Deputy Commissioner Muhammad Ayaz Khan told World Watch Monitor that food had been delivered to the Christians in the schools where they stayed. He said a request for cots had been sent to Islamabad. “We are in the process of registration and as soon as that’s done, compensation would be given to every internally displaced person without discrimination,” said Ayaz.
None of these Christians are descendants of the local Pashtoon tribes. Rather all of them arechildren of Christians from Pakistan’s Punjab plains, who migrated to these mountainous areas decades ago.
“My grandfather came to this land but I was born here and Miramshah is my home,” said Iqbal. “I pray that the operation finishes soon and we all return to our homes.”
Daily life for Christians under the Taliban
There are several difficulties in these remote areas, of which even other Pakistani Christians are unaware.
Being of non-Pashtoon descent, the Taliban has treated Christians relatively well under Pashtoon tribal values: Iqbal said the Taliban ordered all the men to grow beards but not the minorities. “Once they detained me over shaving but released me after I told them that Christianity does not oblige me to grow a beard.”
Pakistan’s leading English newspaper reports that some Christians have been accused by theTaliban of spying for the government. Iqbal said that once the Taliban had realized that Christians were peace-loving people, they did not disturb them.
However, a Christian woman from North Waziristan has told BBC Urdu that even Christian women had to observe purdah: the Islamic practice used to prevent men from seeing women through forms of forced segregation and women wearing veils.
In September last year two suicide bombers killed more than 80 Christians as they worshipped in All Saints Church in Peshawar. The main Taliban denied any link with the bombings (which were, however, claimed by a TTP splinter group, Jundullah) but condoned the act saying “We didn’t carry out the church attack. However, we believe it’s according to the Sharia”. However, Iqbal confirmed what was reported in Dawn – that North Waziristan’s local Taliban expressed their sorrow with the local Christians, and even sent “a message of sympathy and condolence”.
But girls’ education has become difficult to obtain for all of the locals. “It is more than a year since the Taliban closed down Miramshah Government Girls’ Degree College and other schools in the area because they considered girls’ education un-Islamic,” said Iqbal.
“These issues may not remain there after the operation is conducted in the area,” said Iqbal, “but other issues are going to be there when we return to our homes”.
Iqbal said the Pakistan government is neither willing to give them a place for worship nor respectable jobs. “A good number of Christians in North Waziristan work as truck mechanics, trailers and teachers but the majority of them work as sanitary workers, or ‘sweepers’, because of discriminatory treatment,” he said.
Iqbal said the Pakistani government is only willing to allow Christians in tribal areas to work as street sweepers.
Traditionally, under the Indian caste system the occupation of ‘sweeping’ is attached with ‘untouchables’ and a social stigma of uncleanness and degradation is attached with it.
“The only profession for Christian girls available for some time was teaching, because tribal Muslims found it indecent to send their females out of the home for work,” Iqbal said. He said now doors have been closed on Christians in this profession too.
Iqbal also said Sunday worship takes place on a road and, despite repeated requests, the government has been unwilling to assign them a building.