PESHAWAR, PAKISTAN // At least 78 people were killed yesterday in a twin suicide bombing on a church in Pakistan, including 34 women and seven children.
The attack, which also left more than 120 wounded, was believed to be the deadliest attack on Christians in the country.
The two attackers struck at the end of a service at All Saints Church in Peshawar, the main town in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province which has borne the brunt of a Islamist insurgency in recent years.
The bombers struck just as the service had ended. Nazir Khan, 50, a teacher, said at least 400 worshippers were greeting each other when there was a huge explosion.
“A huge blast threw me on the floor and as soon as I regained my senses, a second blast took place and I saw wounded people everywhere,” Mr Khan said.
Shreds of flesh and bloodstains covered the walls and floor of the church. The blasts blew out the 130-year-old building’s windows.
Pages of a Bible were scattered near the altar and rice meals mingled with dust on the floor amid shattered benches. Walls were gouged with ball bearings used in the explosives.
Grieving relatives blocked the main Grand Trunk Road motorway with bodies of the victims to protest against the killings.
“I heard two explosions. People started to run. Human remains were strewn all over the church,” said one parishioner, who only gave her first name, Margrette.
Her voice breaking with emotion, she said she had not seen her sister since the explosions ripped through the gate area outside the church.
The Taliban-linked militant group TTP Jundullah claimed responsibility for the attack.
“All non-Muslims in Pakistan are our target, and they will remain our target as long as America fails to stop drone strikes in our country,” said Ahmad Marwat, the group’s spokesman.
Christians in Karachi, Lahore, Multan and other cities also staged protests against the killings and demanded state protection for their lives and properties. In Karachi, protesters clashed with police when they tried to clear a road in Isa Nagri, a low-income Christian neighbourhood.
The provincial government had announced a three-day period of mourning in the state.
Pakistan’s prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, condemned the “cruel” attack, saying it violated the tenets of Islam.
Sahibzada Anees, one of Peshawar’s most senior officials, said most of the wounded were in critical condition.
“We are in an area which is a target of terrorism and within that area there was a special security arrangement for the church,” Mr Anees said. “We are in a rescue phase and once it is over we will investigate what went wrong.”
Former minister for interfaith harmony Paul Bhatti and provincial lawmaker Fredrich Azeem Ghauri both said the attack was the deadliest ever targeting Christians in Pakistan.
The small and largely impoverished Christian community suffers discrimination in the overwhelmingly Muslim-majority nation but bombings against them are extremely rare.
Pakistan’s Ulema Council, an association of leading Muslim scholars, strongly condemned the church attack and said killing innocent people breaches the tenets of Islam.
“It is an extremely shameful attack which has shamed all Pakistanis and Muslims,” Allama Tahir Mehmood Ashrafi, chief of the council, said. “There is no room for such terrorist acts in Islam.”
Sectarian violence between majority Sunnis and minority Shiites is on the rise in Pakistan. Yesterday’s attack will fuel fears the already beleaguered Christian community could be increasingly targeted.
Islamist militants have carried out hundreds of bombings targeting security forces and minority Muslim groups they regard as heretical, but attacks on Christians have previously largely been confined to grenade attacks and occasional riots.
Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is a deeply conservative province bordering the tribal districts along the Afghan frontier which are home to Taliban and Al-Qaeda militants.
Provincial lawmaker Mr Ghauri said there were about 200,000 Christians in the province, of whom 70,000 lived in Peshawar.
“Now after this attack Christians across Pakistan will fear for their lives.”
Only around two per cent of Pakistan’s population of 180 million are Christian. The community complains of growing discrimination.
The US Commission on International Religious Freedom has warned that the risk to Pakistan’s minorities has reached crisis levels.
Christians have a precarious existence in Pakistan, often living in slum-like “colonies” side-by-side with Muslims and fearful of allegations of blasphemy, a sensitive subject that can provoke outbursts of public violence.
In the town of Gojra in Punjab province in 2009, a mob burnt 77 houses and killed seven people after rumours that a copy of the Quran had been desecrated during a Christian marriage ceremony.
Rimsha Masih, a Christian girl who was arrested for alleged blasphemy last year, fled to Canada with her family in June after the charges were dropped.
* Reuters with additional reporting by the Associated Press and Agence France-Presse