Aug. 22--On Oct. 28, last year, Moses Francis was attending the Sunday morning service at St. Dominic's Church in Bahawalpur, a small town in eastern Pakistan, when masked gunmen stormed into the Roman Catholic church. "The priest was just saying, 'May the blessings of the Almighty God go with you...' it was the bilkul [absolute] end of the service, when they came in and started firing with their Kalashnikovs--they went dhur-dhur-dhur-dhur-dhur...dhur-dhur-dhur-dhur-dhur... they fired like this into the congregation," says Moses during a phone interview with

The next few moments passed in a blur as the 80-year-old retired Pakistani Navy sailor slumped down in the aisle after being shot in the back. "I fell down and lost consciousness, but they still fired at me," he says. Today, Francis can only hobble around his Bahawalpur home with the help of crutches and he says he avoids going out--except to church.

Still, it was a miraculous escape. He sustained 10 bullet wounds--four in his back and six in his legs. "God saved me," he says simply. "But the others were not so lucky." Sixteen people died in the attack--including 15 worshippers and a policeman--in what was to be the first in an alarming spate of attacks on Pakistani Christians and Westerners across the South Asian nation.

Since the U.S.-led military campaign in Afghanistan began, 59 people have been killed in eight attacks against Christian institutions. While 16 of the victims were Westerners, the majority of the victims were local Christians. The latest attack occurred on Aug. 9 in a chapel in a missionary hospital in Taxila, a northern Pakistani town situated along the old Silk Route that was once an ancient center of Buddhist learning and home to some of Hinduism's earliest shrines.

But if Taxila once saw a confluence of influences of the diverse cultures that dotted the old trade route connecting China to Europe, today its residents are still reeling from the naked bigotry displayed that day, when Islamic militants killed four Pakistani nurses right after the morning service.

In a country where 97 percent of the 145 million population is Muslim, human rights groups have periodically protested that there is woefully insufficient protection granted Pakistan's religious minorities, which include Christians, Hindus, Sikhs and certain Shiite Muslim sects considered a renegade sect by the Sunni majority powerbase.

But Shahbaz Bhatti, chairman of the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance, says the situation "has gone from bad to worse. After the Sept. 11 attacks, it's becoming unbearable as more and more Christians are becoming targets of Islamic militants." In the weeks after Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf signed on to the U.S.-led war on terror and promised a crackdown on militants, five Islamic hardline groups were banned.

The crackdowns were welcomed by Washington, but were greeted with ire by extremist groups and some experts say a domestic increase in the militancy Pakistan once exported to its neighbors--Afghanistan and India.

In what Bhatti calls "twisted logic," Pakistani Christians turned into symbolic targets for Islamic extremist groups who view local Christians as representing the interests of the West since Westerners tend to be Christians. "They [the militants] are against the war in Afghanistan," says Francis. "They take it out on us, because we are defenseless."

When he was a strapping 25-year-old, Francis opted to stay on in the newly formed Islamic Republic of Pakistan after the Muslim-majority state broke away from Hindu-dominated India in 1947 in a bloody separation commonly called 'the partition."

A speech by Pakistan's founding father, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, guaranteeing all citizens equal rights reassured him of his decision even though Pakistan is a Muslim rather than a secular state. By then, Francis had served in the colonial British Navy during World War II. After Pakistan gained independence from Britain, he went on to serve his country during the three wars it fought with India in 1948, 1965 and 1971.

It was not until the 1980s that religious coexistence in Pakistan took a severe bashing under the reign of Gen. Zia ul-Huq, who, under a broad Islamization process to win the support of hardliners for military rule, introduced the infamous blasphemy laws. Under the laws, only the word of a Muslim accuser is needed to prosecute a non-Muslim on blasphemy charges, which can carry the death penalty upon conviction.

Human rights groups have charged that the laws have been all too frequently abused and turned into a tool in land and business disputes as well as a means to intimidate and threaten minorities.

"In a country where there is very little prospect of getting a fair trial, there's a great danger of resolving personal disputes through blasphemy allegations," says Vikram Parekh, researcher for South Asia at the New York-based Human Rights Watch

. "But this is not to say that there are some cases that are genuinely bigoted."