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.
Pakistan's parallel justice system of tribal councils (jirgas) and village councils (panchayats) often take a literal interpretation of Islamic law and rights groups have charged that the handling of blasphemy cases depends more on political considerations than the fair administration of justice.
In May 1998, Dr. John Joseph, a Roman Catholic bishop of the Faisalabad Archdiocese, shot himself in the head in protest against the blasphemy charges filed against Ayub Masih, a Christian who was arrested in 1996 for allegedly "speaking against Islam" for defending Indian-born British novelist Salman Rushdie.
Although the Lahore High Court threw out Masih's appeal against the death sentence, on Aug. 15, the Pakistani Supreme Court overturned the verdict and ordered Masih to be released from jail.
Pakistani higher courts have frequently overturned death sentences on blasphemy counts and some experts say the political establishment does not approve of the death sentence in such cases, fearing international criticism.
But while welcoming the Supreme Court ruling on the Masih case, I.A. Rehman, director of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, warns that "problems of minority rights related to the overall orientation of the State and certain provisions in the constitution create a climate in which minorities come under, and will continue to come under attack."
In 1999, when Musharraf came into power after ousting then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in a bloodless coup, the Pakistani general promised to implement "procedural changes" to reduce the possibility of abuse of the blasphemy laws. While the law stipulates that the police can arrest a person accused of blasphemy based solely on the word of a Muslim accuser without an investigation, Musharraf suggested that blasphemy claims should initially be referred to a senior civil servant, who would then investigate the case before ordering an arrest.
But faced with a sharp reaction from hardline Islamic groups and parties, Musharraf backed down from his promise in 2000, announcing his plans to leave the controversial laws completely unchanged. "Musharraf was unable to make even modest procedural reforms despite repeated calls from Pakistani human rights groups to repeal the laws on the basis of their inconsistencies with international human rights laws," says Parekh.
Despite Musharraf's hesitation to lock horns with Pakistan's powerful ulema, or clergy, on the blasphemy issue, he did succeed in scrapping a controversial election law under which religious minorities were only allowed to elect representatives of their respective communities.
Often called a system of "religious apartheid" by minority groups, experts say the separate electorate system was introduced by Zia to restrict voting rights of religious minorities following demands from conservative Islamic groups. As Pakistan prepares for its parliamentary elections scheduled for Oct. 10, the return of the joint electorate system has been widely welcomed by minority rights groups.
But while calling the move "good as far as it goes," Rehman warns that "military regimes do tend to do some good things, but without the political process at play and the consent of the people involved, they tend to polarize society."
On the democratization front, experts say Musharraf's track record has been disappointing. At a press conference on Wednesday, Musharraf unveiled controversial constitutional changes that would give him the power to dismiss parliament. He also provided for the creation of a civilian-military National Security Council that he would chair to oversee the government. "Musharraf's main concern is to remain in power and to secure his post for the next five years," warns Rehman. "He obviously does not want to take the clerics heads-on, so with regard to minority issues, you can expect small changes. But the big issues, the real problems facing minorities, will remain."
On his part, Francis says he is satisfied with Musharraf's assurances that Christians will be protected by the state and militants targeting them would be brought to justice. But investigations into the attacks have faced many problems. In July, four men accused of the Bahawalpur attack were shot dead while they were being driven in a police vehicle during an "encounter" with unidentified gunmen, Pakistani police said. All four suspects were believed to be members of the banned Lashkar-i-Jhangvi militant group.
Francis however says he understands that Musharraf is doing his best. But what he really wants is a return to the "old days", when average Pakistanis acknowledged the contributions made by the Christian community and he could live and worship without fear. "Nowadays, everyone is scared," he says. "So, even if people don't like what's happening, they can't say anything, because you never know what the neighbors think and who they may support." .