Pakistani Christians Face Discrimination at Relief Camps

As Pakistan's army attacks Taliban strongholds in the northwestern Swat valley, more than 360,000 civilians have fled the fighting in just over a week.

As the new influx of civilians continue to flood camps and relief efforts continue in full swing, thousands of Christians are alleging discrimination at the hands of local authorities.

According to a Christian source, government-designated staffs at relief camps are denying Christians permission to register and the minority faces social ostracism, threats and abuse.

Pakistan Christian Congress Chief Dr. Nazir S Bhatti said the registration process for Christians, Sikhs and Hindus at relief camps has been harsh and he called upon the Federal Minority Ministry to set up separate camps.

Quoting a displaced Christian, Yousaf Masih, Bhatti said, "The staff on registration duty appointed by government is not permitting them in camps on a plea that Muslim displaced families cannot share food made for them which is prepared and distributed by them."

According to Yousaf, Christians have been asked to set up tents and prepare food separately

Yousaf, after failing to access any relief camps with five other families, finally ended up staying at a relative's house in Peshawar. The Christian explained that it was even difficult to talk to U.N. representatives due to the language barrier.

Moreover, there are hundreds of Christian families in Mangora city, he said, who are unable to flee due to expensive transport and erratic bus services.

These instances, however, is of no surprise as the Christian population in Pakistan has been undergoing severe persecution in the hands of Islamic fundamentalists, who routinely kidnap Christian girls, force conversion and sometimes burn their homes.

Bhatti has demanded that the government make special arrangements to pull Christians from Swat valley and set up camps for them. There are over 500,000 Christians in NWFP who are facing hardships and abuse, according to Bhatti.

He said Pakistan Christians fully support the military offensive against the Taliban extremism.

Meanwhile, the U.N. refugee chief on Monday called for international aid for displaced people fleeing the fighting.

"This is a huge and rapidly unfolding emergency which is going to require considerable resources beyond those that currently exist in the region," U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres said.

"I call on the international community to support the overall humanitarian effort on behalf of displaced Pakistanis," he added in a statement.

The United States has announced $4.9 million worth of aid for the refugees.

Humanitarian agency Church World Service is attending to basic needs by providing water, food, shelter and sanitation to the displaced. The agency's aid workers on the ground estimate as many as 800,000 people are now displaced by the latest violence on top of the 500,000 who had already fled the fighting.

While aid agencies are helping to create camps for the displaced, thousands of refugees are seeking shelter wherever they can - whether it is with families, with strangers, in caves and in fields, according to Church World Service workers.

With thousands in makeshift camps where there are no sustainable food, shelter, water or hygiene available, Church World Service has mobilized response teams and relief items into those areas.