Dozens killed in Pakistan as suicide bombers hit church
A double suicide bombing killed more than 60 people at a church service in north-west Pakistan on Sunday, officials said, believed to be the deadliest attack on Christians in the troubled country.
The two bombers struck at the end of a service at All Saints Church in Peshawar, the main town of north-western Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, which has borne the brunt of a bloody Islamist insurgency in recent years.
Dr Mohammad Iqbal of Peshawar's Lady Reading Hospital told Agence France-Presse (AFP) that 61 people had been killed and 120 wounded. Fellow doctor Sher Ali confirmed the numbers.
Sahibzada Anees, one of Peshawar's most senior officials, told reporters the bombers struck when the service had just ended.
"Most of the wounded are in critical condition," Anees said.
"We are in an area which is a target of terrorism and within that area there was a special security arrangement for the church. We are in a rescue phase and once it is over we will investigate what went wrong."
Former minister for inter-faith harmony Paul Bhatti and provincial lawmaker Fredrich Azeem Ghauri both said the attack was the deadliest ever targeting Christians in Pakistan.
School teacher Nazir Khan (50) said the service had just ended and at least 400 worshippers were greeting each other when there was a big 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," Khan said.
Grieving relatives blocked the main Grand Trunk road highway with bodies of the victims to protest against the killings, an AFP reporter said.
Sectarian violence between majority Sunni and minority Shi'ite Muslims is on the rise in Pakistan and Sunday'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 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," he warned.
Prime minister's response
Pakistan's Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif strongly condemned the bombings.
"Terrorists have no religion and targeting innocent people is against the teachings of Islam and all religions," he said in a statement.
Sharif said such "cruel acts of terrorism reflect the brutality and inhumane mindset of the terrorists".
Only around 2% of Pakistan's population of 180-million are Christian.
The community is largely poor and 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" cheek-by-jowl with Muslims and fearful of allegations of blasphemy, a sensitive subject that can provoke sudden outbursts of public violence.
In the town of Gojra, in Punjab province, in 2009, a mob burned 77 houses and killed seven people after rumours that a copy of the Islamic holy book the Koran had been desecrated during a Christian marriage ceremony.
Last year a young Christian girl, Rimsha Masih, spent three weeks in jail after being accused of blasphemy. The case was thrown out but she and her family have been in hiding ever since, fearing for their lives. – AFP