Christians prepare for holidays with an eye on security

December 23, 2017 - 11:20 AM
A police officer stands guard on the roof of Bethel Memorial Methodist Church, attacked last week by gunmen in Quetta, Pakistan. (Reuters)

QUETTA, Pakistan/JAKARTA — Christmas church services and other celebrations are being held this weekend under the gaze of armed guards and security cameras in many countries after Islamic State gunmen attacked a Methodist church in Pakistan as a Sunday service began.

Majority-Muslim countries in Asia and the Middle East were particularly nervous after U.S. President Donald Trump’s recent announcement he intends to relocate the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, a decision that has outraged many Muslims.

In Indonesia, the world’s biggest Muslim-majority country, police said they had stepped up security around churches and tourist sites, mindful of near-simultaneous attacks on churches there at Christmas in 2000 that killed about 20 people.

Muslim volunteers in Indonesia are also on standby to provide additional security if requested.

“If our brothers and sisters who celebrate Christmas need … to maintain their security to worship, we will help,” said Yaqut Chiolil Qoumas, chairman of the youth wing of the Nahdlatul Ulema, one of the country’s biggest Muslim organizations.

In Cairo, where a bombing at the Egyptian capital’s largest Coptic cathedral killed at least 25 people last December, the interior ministry said police would conduct regular searches of streets around churches ahead of the Coptic celebration of Christmas on January 7.

Egypt’s Christian minority has been targeted in several attacks in recent years, including the bombing of two churches in the north of the country on Palm Sunday in April.

At the Heliopolis Basilica, a Catholic cathedral in northeastern Cairo, security forces had set up metal detectors at the main doors and police vehicles were stationed outside ahead of masses on December 25, which marks Christmas Day for Catholic and Protestant Christians.

German police brought in experts and an explosives robot to investigate a suspicious package at a Christmas market in the city of Bonn late on Friday.

Germany is on high alert a year after a failed Tunisian asylum seeker killed 12 people when he hijacked a truck and drove it into a Berlin Christmas market.

Bombed-out church

In the Pakistani city of Quetta, members of a Bethel Memorial Methodist Church were repairing the damage done by a pair of suicide bombers who attacked during a service last Sunday, killing 10 people and wounding more than 50.

Broken pews and damaged musical instruments were still strewn around church grounds on Thursday, with about a dozen police standing guard.

“We’re making efforts to complete repairs and renovation before Christmas, but it seems difficult in view of the lot of damage,” said Pastor Simon Bashir, who was leading the service when the attackers struck. He was not hurt.

The government of Baluchistan province, of which Quetta is capital, plans to deploy 3,000 security personnel in and around 39 Christian churches this Sunday and Monday.

Provincial police chief Moazzam Jah Ansari told Reuters volunteers from churches were also being trained to conduct body searches and identify worshipers entering churches.

Pakistan’s Christian minority, which makes up about 1 percent of the population of 208 million, has been a frequent target, along with Shi‘ite and Sufi Muslims, of Sunni Muslim militants.

In the eastern Pakistani city of Lahore, where an Easter Day bombing in a park last year killed more than 70 people, police Detective Inspector General Haider Ashraf said every church would be monitored with CCTV cameras as part of security measures.

Christian Kaleem Masih lost his aunt in the Easter attack, which was claimed by Islamic State, and his wife was wounded, but he said they would be attending Christmas services.

“Christmas is our holy day,” Kaleem said. “We will fulfill our religious duty by celebrating it with smiles on our faces.”

Jerusalem issue

In Malaysia, a police official said Trump’s decision on Jerusalem increased worry about attacks.

“We are concerned not only with safety at churches and places of worship but also any threats by Islamic State or any other security threat following the Jerusalem issue,” said Malaysia’s Inspector-General of Police Mohamad Fuzi Harun.

Jerusalem, revered by Jews, Christians and Muslims alike, is home to Islam’s third holiest site and has been at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for decades. Israel captured Arab East Jerusalem in 1967 and later annexed it in an action not recognized internationally.

Protests across the Muslim world in Asia and the Middle East have largely been peaceful.

In Jerusalem itself, an Israeli police spokesman said there were no new security measures but police would deploy forces as usual around Christian holy sites including the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and also secure convoys of worshipers from the West Bank city of Bethlehem, traditionally known as the birthplace of Jesus Christ and run by the Palestinian Authority.

Many Palestinian Christians oppose Trump’s announcement and say they have no fear of attacks.

“Trump’s decision offended all Palestinians, be they Christians or Muslims. Why would we feel threatened by Muslims?” said George Antone, a Catholic who lives in Gaza, which is run by the Palestinian Hamas group.