A PAIR of suicide bombers blew themselves up outside a 130-year-old church in Pakistan after Sunday Mass, killing at least 78 people in the deadliest attack on Christians in the predominantly Muslim country.
Violence has been on the rise in Pakistan in past months, undermining prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s efforts to tame the insurgency after coming to power in June. An assault of this scale is certain to give ammunition to his critics who are against his campaign to negotiate a ceasefire deal with Taleban-linked militants fighting to topple his government in the capital Islamabad.
Interior minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan said at least 78 people were killed, including 34 women and seven children.
“Who are these terrorists killing women and children?” he said on live television, speaking from the north-western city of Peshawar where the attack took place.
The attackers struck the historic white-stone All Saints Church just as hundreds of worshippers were leaving.
“I heard two explosions. People started to run. Human remains were strewn all over the church,” said one worshipper, who only gave her first name, Margrette.
The Taleban-linked militant group TTP Jundullah claimed responsibility for the attack.
“They are the enemies of Islam, therefore we target them,” said the group’s spokesman, Ahmed Marwat. “We will continue our attacks on non-Muslims on Pakistani land.”
Christians make up about four per cent of Pakistan’s population of 180 million and tend to keep a low profile in a country where Sunni Muslim militants frequently bomb targets they see as heretical, including Christians, Sufis and Shiites.
Yesterday’s attacks could complicate efforts by Mr Sharif to engage militants in peace negotiations at a time when roadside bombs, targeted killings and suicide attacks continue unabated. “The prime minister said that terrorists have no religion and targeting innocent people is against the teachings of Islam and all religions,” his office said in a statement.
“He added that such cruel acts of terrorism reflect the brutality and inhumane mind-set of the terrorists.”
Attacks on Christian areas occur sporadically around the country but yesterday’s assault, in a densely populated Christian residential area was the most violent in recent history.
In 2009, 40 houses and a church were set ablaze by a mob of 1,000 Muslims in the town of Gojra in Punjab province. At least seven Christians died. Seventeen Christians were killed in an attack on a church in Bahawalpur in 2001.
“This is the deadliest attack against Christians in our country,” said Irfan Jamil, the bishop of the eastern city of Lahore.
One of the wounded, John Tariq, who lost his father in the attack, asked of the attackers, “What have we done wrong to these people? Why are we being killed?”
Some residents, enraged at the lack of adequate security at the church, took to the streets immediately after the attack, burning tyres and shouting slogans. Shops were closed in the Kohati Gate area where several other churches are located.
Protests by Christians were also reported in other cities including Karachi and Multan.