Wednesday, November 4, 2009
Pakistani Christian Missionary School set on fire
Fire caused financial loss worth $1,195,314.32 US Dollars
By Dan Wooding and Sheraz Khurram Khan
Special to ASSIST News Service
MURREE, PAKISTAN (ANS) -- Suspected militants on Tuesday, November 3 set on fire a Christian school in Murree, reducing three buildings of the popular Christian residential school to ashes and causing an estimated financial loss to the tune of one billion Pakistani rupees ($1,195,314.32 US Dollars), the Sharing Life Ministry Pakistan told ANS.
Murree, a popular hill station and a summer resort especially for residents of Islamabad, is located along Islamabad-Kohala highway some 30 km (19 miles) northeast of Islamabad.
Unidentified militants set the St. Denys’ Murree School’s three buildings on fire at 4:45 pm on Tuesday by hurling some inflammable chemical into the school premises from back side of the school’s building. The fire was so forceful that it reduced a five-storey building, a three storey building and another building to ashes in one and a half hours.
A three storey building that was damaged contained a box room, children dormitories, class rooms and a hall. The five-storey building had stores on first floor, residences on second floor, a staff room and a library on third floor, dormitories on fourth floor and a box room on fifth floor.
Another building that also suffered extensive loss was situated between the three and five-storey buildings. It had a kitchen, classrooms, dinning halls and offices. The school records have been destroyed as a result of fire. The school was being run under the aegis of Church of Pakistan.
ANS has learnt that the entire buildings have been gutted except a prep class room and chapel.
The fire created fear and panic among 142 boarders who were present inside the school on Tuesday. Fear-stricken school children told Mrs. Noreen Barkat, the principal of the school, that the building was in flames. She said the boarding students told her that they heard a bang and saw a ball of fire rising into the air.
ANS has discovered that the forest at the rear of the school building also caught fire and fire-fighters had to fight for several hours to overpower fire.
A pall of smoke hung above the burning school buildings as efforts were underway by the school administration to ensure there was no loss of life, she said.
Mrs. Barkat said she pulled all school children out of harm’s ways in five minutes.
“There hasn’t been any casualty as a result of this incident but the fire has gutted the entire building. Nothing of school has left behind. I pray that the school starts operating again after reconstruction,” Mrs. Barkat told ANS.
As a result of ongoing military operation against Pakistani Taliban in the South Waziristan of Pakistan, the police and military installations and, of late, the educational institutions of the country are being targeted by militants as part of their desperate and dastard attempts to force government to scrap the crackdown.
Asked if the government had provided security to the school in view of current situation in the country, Mr. Barkat said he was advised by a government officer on Saturday, October 31, 2009 to hire private security guards.
“I had told the officer that we could not trust on guards provided by private security firms because we suspect they might play into the hands of Taliban.”
One policeman with a conventional weapon was standing guard outside the school building on Tuesday, he said. Underlining the need for swelling number of the police force in Murree, Mr. Barkat told ANS that the total number of police force in Murree was 90.
Like most of missionary educational institutions in the country the now charred missionary school had a reputation for excellent academic standards.
Asked if foreign missionary teachers were also teaching at the institution, Mr. Barkat said they had left a long ago because of escalating terrorism in the country.
The total number of resident students at the school is 200. The school had employed 20 teachers and 32 workers. When ANS asked Mr. Barkat if the school building was insured he said he did not have any information at the time of speaking. The school record, he said, was in Lahore and he would find it soon.
Mr. Barkat did not rule out Taliban setting St. Denys’ school to fire.
Mr. Sohail Johnson, the Chief Coordinator of the Sharing Life Ministry Pakistan, who had first informed ANS about torching of the Christian school while he was on the way to Murree told ANS after arriving at the scene of incident that Mr. Barkat had filed an application to the police for lodging First Information Report after the incident. The Sharing Life Ministry’s team that visited the torched school comprised its Chief Coordinator Sohail Johnson, Khalil Benjamin, Irfan Barkat and Shahzad Kamran.
He told ANS police had not yet made any arrests in connection with torching of the school.
Johnson, who visited the torched buildings of the school told ANS that he did not believe leakage of gas at the school caused fire. He also dispelled rumours that had spread soon after the school was set on fire that the fire started because of an electrical short circuit.
Mr. Johnson said that the police and law enforcement agencies cordoned off the area after the incident.
He told ANS that a wooden bridge between schools’ building and chapel also caught fire. He further disclosed that fire fighters dismantled the bridge to keep the raging fire from spreading to the chapel.
Mr. Irfan Barkat who had accompanied SLMP team told ANS that two Cathedral schools in Lahore had already been closed for last two weeks in view of security threats.
He said the fire caused extensive damage to the St. Denys’ which stood out in the area because of its high quality wooden work.
He said only one portion of the building was not damaged by fire otherwise the entire building had been gutted.
Commenting on apprehensions that the current situation in the country has sparked among Pakistani Christians Mr. Johnson said that several Christian institutions had been forced to close following recent upsurge in violence.
Expressing his concern over bombing and torching of Pakistani educational institutions, Mr. Johnson criticized bombing of missionary girls schools in Swat. He said most of schools across Pakistan were still closed. If management of some school decides to open its school the police forces management to shut it again, he said.
He demanded arrest of culprits behind torching the missionary school and urged Christian brothers and sisters across globe to pray for security of Pakistani Christians.
The ministry also interviewed Shafaullah, the president of Hotel Association Murree, who would not believe that fire was caused by terrorism. Sohail said the man feared that such an impression would affect hospitality business in Murree.
Mr. Johnson also criticized Pakistan’s electronic media for not giving due coverage to the incident.
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