By Xavier P. William, BosNewsLife Special Correspondent reporting from Rawalpindi, Pakistan
RAWALPINDI, PAKISTAN (BosNewsLife)– Pakistani security forces freed hostages held in a church compound by over a dozen armed men and women on Friday, April 2, and detained several suspects, police officials and Christians told BosNewsLife.
The stand-off at the Gordon College Chapel in the city of Rawalpindi, near the capital Islamabad, began hours earlier when 10 men and eight women wielding automatic rifles and other weapons stormed the compound after a Good Friday worship service there, witnesses said.
“They threw Bibles on the floor and started throwing things around. They also entered the adjacent residential area and started yelling at the women and children at home,” explained Shaban Gill, a relative of the attacked residents.
“They started looting the [compound] at gun point [and] harassed the women and children, taking all their cash and jewelry.”
Another resident, Imran Nasir, said his wife and their two daughters, ages 18 months and 4-years-old, were taken as hostages by the armed group.
Amid the ensuing chaos, Gill said, several gunmen — some standing “on the walls of the compound” — opened fire at him when he tried to intervene, but he “managed to save” himself, unhurt.
It was not immediately clear which militant group, if any, was behind the attack on the Gordon College Chapel compound, run by Robinson Community Development Ministries (RCDM), an evangelical aid, advocacy and mission organization. Their motives were unknown Friday, April 2.
Witnesses said the attack was heard by workers at the opposite office of a Pakistani lawmaker, Malik Shakeel Awan, who was not injured in the violence.
They and Christians soon accompanied security forces to the church compound in an attempt to free the hostages unharmed, said local police chief Israr Ahmed Satti.
He reported that police broke the gate, freed the hostages and detained about 10 suspects. Police did not offer details on whether there had been much resistance from the attackers, but nearly half of the 18 armed persons apparently managed to escape.
Men, dressed in white, could be later seen in the police station, apparently awaiting interrogation.
A police list of names seen by a BosNewsLife reporter identified the detained suspects as five men, Mushtaq Ahmed, Amjad Zaman Cheema, Dildar Hussain, Muhammad Anwer and Saqib Ali and the women as Nusrat Bibi, Shahnaz Bibi, Sadia Bibi, Irum Bibi and Fatima Bibi.
Police also confiscated automatic weapons along with bullets from the group, added Satti.
Christians claimed police had been reluctant to file charges against the suspects, but that they did so after pressure from RCDM Chairman Robinson Asghar and Christian activists protesting near the police station.
Satti said however that he had ordered “four armed policemen” to guard the church compound, but Christians claimed no security personnel could be seen by early Saturday, local time.
The attack was the latest in a series of violent incidents against Christians in Pakistan’s Punjab province, which have often been carried out by suspected Islamic militants and hardliners, according to rights groups and church organizations.
Christians are estimated to comprise less than five percent of Pakistan’s mainly Muslim population of roughly 175 million people.