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Abbottabad Church holds its breath

Christians in the city where Osama bin Laden was killed keep a low profile and call a meeting to plot security strategy

Kamran Chaudhry, Abbottabad

May 3, 2011

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The small Catholic parish in this northern city says it has limited its activities after the death of Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, the mastermind of the 9/11 terror attacks killed by US special forces here. “I couldn’t conduct pastoral visits to homes yesterday after security increased," Father Akram Javed Gill told "A healing prayer service scheduled today and upcoming Church feasts were cancelled. Also the four policemen posted guard for the church have been put on high alert." The priest has been in charge of the Saint Peter Canisius Catholic church since 2007 in Abbotabbad, the gateway city to the northern mountainous region. About 150 Catholics live in the city, three of them in Bilal town where Bin Laden was killed yesterday. The police today opened the area for reporters for the first time since the assault. Association of Churches of Hazara Division, a body of about five Churches including the Catholic Church, has called a meeting to formulate a future strategy in the area. “It is crucial to maintain peace for the scattered minority communities in the area. We alter the venue at the last moment to avoid leaking the information about the gathering in a tense atmosphere," said Father Javed. The priest described the events as they unfolded during the raid. “We never saw helicopters flying so low. Nobody knew what was going on and we thought it was a military exercise at first," said the priest who also oversees the only Catholic school, St Peter’s, in the city. About 200 students, most of them Muslims, study there. The priest faces difficulties in his work in Abbottabad, which is home to a large military establishment. He had to build higher walls to the church compound in 2009 after Muslims objected to the  “open display” of the statue of Mary in a grotto in the grounds. Last year the authorities asked him to burn several copies of a pamphlet inviting Catholics for Marian devotion. Meanwhile, Hazaras, the local ethnic group which reveres bin Laden, does not believe he is dead. Members of the group say reports of his shooting are a conspiracy by the United States. “Only God can take his life. The whole drama of capturing and killing bin Laden was penned by America to destabilize our country and hold on to its nuclear assets. Nobody saw the body," said Noman Khan, a freelance journalist.
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