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Christians braced for bin Laden death backlash

Country/Region: Iraq, Egypt, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Middle East and North Africa, South and East Asia

Obama-delivers-statement-in-White-House_4X3.jpg
President Barack Obama
announcing Osama bin Laden's death
By Pete Souza / CC BY 3.0

Christians in Islamic countries are bracing themselves for a violent backlash following the death of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

The Church in Pakistan is feeling particularly vulnerable after the world's most wanted terrorist was tracked down to a compound in Abbottabad, around 60 miles from the country's capital Islamabad, and killed by US special forces in the early hours of Monday (2 May) morning.

Following the announcement of bin Laden's death, Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan - the Islamic radical group behind the assassination of Pakistan's only Christian government minister Shahbaz Bhatti - said they would "avenge" the killing.

We are a soft target as they cannot attack America.
A senior Pakistani Christian leader

Christians in Muslim countries are particularly vulnerable to any such retaliatory attacks; they are often considered to be associated with the "Christian" West, making them targets for anti-Western revenge-seeking militants.

Christians on red alert

Paul Bhatti, Special Adviser for Religious Minorities to the Pakistani Government, said the situation there was "tense", adding, "There are, in fact, strong reactions of fear, unreasonable, against Christian minorities. The government is paying close attention to preventative measures."

Schools and Christian institutions have been closed, while churches and Christian areas are under police guard in several Pakistani cities. A senior Christian leader in the country said, "We are a soft target as they cannot attack America."

Christians in Northern Nigeria, who have recently been targeted in post-election violence, are also braced for reprisals after hundreds of Muslims staged a protest in Kaduna denouncing the killing of bin Laden. Many Christians fled to military barracks and police stations seeking protection.

A church pastor explained, "When there is a problem against the Muslim community elsewhere, they [Muslims in northern Nigeria], want to retaliate on Christians in [Nigeria]."

Al-Qaeda attacks on Christians

Al-Qaeda has been connected with numerous significant attacks on Christians in recent months. The Islamic State of Iraq, an al-Qaeda front group, claimed responsibility for a bloody siege at a Baghdad church last October in which at least 58 people were killed. Shortly afterwards they issued a statement saying the "killing sword will not be lifted" and Christians everywhere were "legitimate targets".

The blast at an Egyptian church on New Year's Day that killed 21 people followed threats of church attacks on Islamist websites linked to al-Qaeda; they circulated lists of Egyptian churches, including the one in Alexandria that was targeted, with instructions on how to attack them. Al-Qaeda later denied any involvement in the incident.

In March this year, pamphlets attributed to al-Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban, found at the scene of the assassination of Shahbaz Bhatti, warned that anyone who criticised the country's blasphemy law would be shot.

Al-Qaeda's future

Americans have been celebrating the news of bin Laden's death in the streets while many Western commentators are trumpeting the impending demise of al-Qaeda. Some are drawing links with the "Arab Spring", saying that bin Laden's death comes at a time when the region is turning from extremism to Western values of democracy and freedom.

The US government has pledged to build on the assassination of the al-Qaeda chief to destroy the organisation. John Brennan, President Obama's senior counter-terrorism adviser, said on Tuesday (3 May), "We're determined to do so and we believe we can."

Some Christians in Muslim nations are indeed hopeful that such a feat is now possible, for it could mean greater freedom and reduced threat of attack. A senior church leader in Pakistan said:

Many looked on bin Laden as a hero of the Islamic revolution. But he was a role-model of extremism and a threat to world peace. His death will change the complexion and decentralise as well as demystify extremism.

Other observers are, however, clear that the threat from al-Qaeda remains strong. World leaders including British Prime Minister David Cameron and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have urged vigilance. Ms Clinton said:

Even as we mark this milestone, we should not forget that the battle to stop al Qaeda and its syndicate of terror will not end with the death of bin Laden.

Indeed, bin Laden's role in the organisation has been limited to a largely symbolic one while he has been in hiding for the last decade. And, as Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid, who has written extensively about the Taliban and al-Qaeda, explains, the organisation's nature has evolved from "a highly centralised hierarchy - with recruiting, training and orders all scrutinised by its top leaders - to something much more loose and amorphous. Today al-Qaeda's philosophy is one man, one bomb" - making it all the more difficult to contain.

Rashid warns of world-wide revenge attacks by bin Laden followers, in particular suicide attacks in Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Middle East, adding:

The jihad he espoused will not disappear, for it has taken root in far too many fringe groups. Its political ambitions have been curtailed, but at a wider level it is breeding intolerance in some Muslim societies against Christians, Jews and other minority religious groups, and even beliefs within Islam such as the Sufis.

Ayman al-Zawahiri, now al-Qaeda's de facto leader, previously explained that the terrorist network is not about any one individual:

Jihad in the path of Allah is greater than any individual or organization. It is a struggle between Truth and Falsehood, until Allah Almighty inherits the earth and those who live in it. Mullah Muhammad Omar and Sheikh Osama bin Laden - may Allah protect them from all evil - are merely two soldiers of Islam in the journey of jihad, while the struggle between Truth [Islam] and Falsehood [non-Islam] transcends time.

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