August 9, 2002 | Commentary on Religion and Civil Society, Civil Society

The Black Fortress

Those who think of the war on terrorism in grand geopolitical terms should consider one of its most recent battle zones, a picturesque school in the wooded foothills of Pakistan's Himalayan Mountains.

It was near the resort town of Murree earlier this week that Islamic extremists, armed with assault rifles and grenades, hunted down students and teachers at the Murree Christian School. "God is great!" they shouted in Arabic as they shot bystanders and tried to enter locked classrooms.

Armed guards and clear-headed administrators helped prevent the massacre of the school's 146 children. Six people were killed, though, while a note reportedly found at the scene warned of more attacks "to avenge what is being done by infidels with Muslims."

School officials are pressing on. "I felt called by God to come to this school," a staffer told me in a phone interview yesterday. "I don't have a sense that it's time for me to go."

Founded as a boarding school in 1956, Murree Christian serves the children of expatriates doing mostly humanitarian work in Pakistan. It belongs to the U.S.-based Association of Christian Schools International, an organization of about 5,000 Protestant schools educating more than a million children world-wide.

In Pakistan, Christian organizations are allowed to operate but warned against proselytizing. Conservative Protestant schools typically integrate Christian faith and (contrary to the stereotype) rigorous academic instruction. That's evident at Murree Christian, where the curriculum is geared to the American and British systems and the students are prepped for the Scottish Higher Exams, roughly equivalent to the U.S. Advanced Placement exams. Subjects include English, mathematics, science, foreign languages and Christian theology.

The curriculum is very different in Pakistan's madrasas, the Islamic schools that often function as breeding grounds for terrorists. While educating Pakistan's poorest children, many such schools reject academic subjects altogether for instruction in radical Islam. The result, it seems, is an almost pathological hatred of the West -- including its Christian institutions. Three churches in Pakistan have been attacked in less than a year, including a grenade assault on a Protestant church in Islamabad in mid-March that killed five people.

"This is the lesson of madrasas," one student told a reporter. "The lesson is that Western civilization is not good for Muslims." And yet it is the values of Western civilization that send Americans, Britons, Canadians, Germans and others into Islamic countries to assist vulnerable population groups. The expatriates with children at the Murree school work in hospitals, refugee resettlements and literacy programs.

Host governments such as Pakistan offer few educational options for non-Muslims. Thus the Association of Christian Schools International supports about 40 schools in nations with large Muslim populations, including Turkey, the Mideast and West Africa.

Since Sept. 11, the U.S. State Department has urged international schools to protect American students abroad. At the Murree school, extra security guards had been assigned and students had been practicing how to barricade classroom doors. Such preparations probably saved many lives on Monday.

The Murree Christian School has been closed all week and its board of directors is still deciding when to reopen. It's unclear whether any of the families whose children attend Murree Christian will leave as a result of the attack. "This is a tough decision for them," says Dave Wilcox, an executive at the Association of Christian Schools International. "They are so committed to serving the Pakistan community that they're reluctant to pull away for their own safety's sake."

It has become fashionable among secular elites in America to blame religious commitment of any sort for fanaticism and violence: Conservative Christianity is condemned alongside Islamic fundamentalism for hostility to democratic values. Skeptics willing to have their prejudices challenged ought to visit the faithful at Murree.

Joseph Loconte is a fellow at the Heritage Foundation in Washington and a commentator for National Public Radio.

About the Author

Joseph Loconte William E. Simon Fellow in Religion and a Free Society

Originally appeared in the Wall Street Journal