ISTANBUL (BP)--Christians in Pakistan's Swat Valley are caught between the Taliban and the nation's military as it assaults the stronghold where sharia (Islamic law) is in force.
Nearly 15,000 troops have been deployed in the picturesque Swat Valley in Pakistan's North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and neighboring Afghanistan. Troops came after months of peace negotiations collapsed in April between Taliban Islamist insurgents who have imposed sharia in the valley and the central government. Hundreds of thousands of Pakistanis have fled the war-ravaged area for fear of a full military assault.
On May 10, the army ordered residents to flee Swat Valley during a lull in fighting. Aid groups estimate that as many as 1.3 million could be displaced, according to The Guardian newspaper in London.
Christians are particularly vulnerable in the mass exodus. Working as poor day laborers, they occupy the lowest rung of the social ladder and have little money for costly transportation or for stocking up on resources before fleeing.
"Christians are poor, and like in any conflict, the prices of transportation and commodities skyrocket," Ashar Dean, assistant director of communication of the Church of Pakistan's Peshawar diocese, told Compass Direct News. "Some had to go on foot to flee the valley."
The Taliban had ratcheted up pressure on Christians, other religious minorities and liberal Muslims in the Swat Valley to live according to Islamic fundamentalist norms. They were forced to grow beards and wear Islamic attire for fear of their safety in an attempt to blend in with the region's Muslim residents.
Many Christians also fled because they had insufficient funds to pay the jizye, a poll tax under sharia paid by non-Muslims for protection if they decline to convert to Islam.
In February the Pakistani government ceded control of the Swat Valley to the Taliban, who imposed their version of sharia and established clerical rule over the legal system. Read More