- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 22, 2001

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan When the call to prayer echoes over Islamabad from the mighty Shah Faisal mosque, the sound of Islamic devotion passes over the golden cross and red-bricked tower of St. Thomas Church.
Tucked down a side street, behind a small shopping center, the modest building is a visible reminder that not all Pakistanis share the faith of the vocal lobby backing Afghanistan's Taliban regime, nor their instinctive suspicion of America.
An imminent assault by the Western powers on a Muslim "brother nation" provides a classic recipe for heightened religious tension, and Pakistan's Christian minority about 1.5 per cent of the population is increasingly nervous.
At the best of times, the draconian blasphemy laws allow Islamic extremists to victimize Christians by accusing them of maligning the Prophet Muhammad, for which the penalty is death. One Christian is awaiting execution at present.
As another crisis looms, the congregation of St. Thomas, part of the Church of Pakistan and linked to the Anglican diocese of Manchester, is preparing for more hatred.
"The Islamic conservatives think that, as Christians, we side with America," said the Rev. John Irshad, the assistant vicar of St. Thomas.
"But they forget that, first of all, we are Pakistanis and then we are Christians. I was born here. By birth, I have the right to be Pakistani."
Mr. Irshad passionately rejects the notion that Pakistani patriotism equates with adherence to Islam. Yet many of his Muslim compatriots would find his views about an American strike on Afghanistan abhorrent.
"It would be right for them to attack Afghanistan, as long as they don't kill innocents," he said.
"President Bush is a Christian. He is a very humble man and he loves the Lord. I don't think he will make the mistake of killing innocents."
For an Islamic fundamentalist, that view would confirm the belief that Pakistani Christians are in league with an American plot to subjugate the Islamic world.
If war is waged against Afghanistan, St. Thomas could be as much at risk from reprisal attacks as the American Embassy or the British High Commission.
Nabil Yousaf, a member of the congregation, said: "If the Americans attack, there will be terrorism against Christians here. I'm sure of that. Our government has always tried to protect us. But there are many fundamentalists in Pakistan and they have decided to do harm to Christians."
Celesdina Fazal, who runs St. Thomas' adult-literacy project, said: "It will be seen as a Christian-Muslim war, and then it will be trouble for us. They will not just look for Americans, they will look for Christians everywhere."
Even the most innocent activity at St. Thomas is viewed with deep suspicion.
A casual visit by a Muslim may lead to the congregation being accused of seeking converts.
As the church is in the heart of Islamabad, Mr. Irshad said he could expect protection from the police. Churches in remote areas may not be so fortunate.
Barely two miles away, outside the pillars of Shah Faisal mosque, which can accommodate 100,000 worshippers and claims to be the largest in Asia, the sentiment could not have been more different.
Five students from the International Islamic University of Islamabad were adamant that they would join a jihad if America attacked Afghanistan.
None had any doubts about the innocence of the man they called "Osama."
On the contrary, all were convinced that Mr. Bush organized the atrocity in New York to provide a pretext for a war against Islam.
Ejaz Hussain said: "Any country that attacks our brothers in Afghanistan makes himself a target for jihad.
"Then America will be destroyed because all the Muslim countries will continue together."

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