Suicide Attack at Church in Pakistan Kills Dozens
By ISMAIL KHAN and SALMAN MASOOD, Published: September 22, 2013
PESHAWAR, Pakistan — A suicide attack on a historic Christian church in northwestern Pakistan killed at least 78 people on Sunday in one of the deadliest attacks on the Christian minority in Pakistan in years.
The attack occurred as worshipers left the All Saints Church in the old quarter of the regional capital, Peshawar, after a service on Sunday morning. Up to 600 worshipers had attended the service and were leaving to receive free food being distributed on the lawn outside when two explosions ripped through the crowd.
Interior Minister Nisar Ali Khan, who arrived in Peshawar on Sunday evening, said that 78 people had been killed, including 34 women and 7 children. “Such an attack on women and children is against humanity,” Mr. Khan said.
Akhtar Ali Shah, the home secretary of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, said that more than 100 people had been wounded. Mr. Khan said that 37 of the wounded were children.
The dead also included two Muslim police officers who had been posted outside the church. Witness reported scenes of mayhem as rescue workers ferried victims from the church, which witnesses said was scattered with body parts, shrapnel and bloodied clothing.
On Sunday afternoon, the bodies of 45 victims were placed in coffins and moved to the nearby Saint John’s Church, the oldest church in the city.
The coffins were placed next to one another in the church playground as dozens of grieving relatives and mourners gathered around. The mood was somber and angry.
A large contingent of police officers was deployed outside the church, and mourners were allowed to enter the compound after a thorough security check. Ambulances were allowed to enter the compound one by one as dead bodies were then placed in vehicles to take them to the morgue.
The police said it was not clear whether the attack was the work of a lone attacker or of two suicide bombers. Muhammad Ilyas, a senior officer in Peshawar, said it was more likely that a lone suicide bomber had first thrown a hand grenade before detonating his explosives.
“As soon as the service finished and the food was being distributed, all of a sudden we heard one explosion, followed by another,” said Azim Ghori, a witness.
It was the worst attack in years on the Christian minority in Pakistan, and coincides with a broader wave of attacks on religious minorities including Shiite Muslims this year.
In March, a Muslim mob swarmed through a Christian neighborhood in the eastern city of Lahore, burning two churches and more than 100 houses. Christians also frequently find themselves accused of blasphemy under Pakistan’s strict blasphemy laws.
The attacks are mostly orchestrated by Sunni extremist militant groups, although some have also been claimed by the Pakistani Taliban.
The All Saints Church is one of the oldest in Peshawar and was built during the British colonial era. It is at Kohati Gate in the city’s old quarter, where numerous militant attacks have occurred in recent years, mostly targeting Muslims.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has been trying to initiate peace talks with the Pakistani Taliban, aimed at ending a decade of violence. An all-parties political conference held earlier this month gave the government approval to start negotiations with the insurgents.
But that offer was publicly rejected by the Taliban, which later claimed responsibility for the killing of a senior army general in Upper Dir, near the Afghan border, last week.
Immediately after Sunday’s bombing, questions were again raised about the government’s plans to hold peace talks.
Mr. Sharif condemned the attack. “The terrorists have no religion and targeting innocent people is against the teachings of Islam and all religions,” he said in a statement.
The Pakistan Ulema Council, the largest clerical body, also condemned the blast, saying that the council was “standing with our Christian brothers in this tragedy.”
After the bombing, as people searched for their relatives on the church premises, opposition politicians criticized the provincial government, led by Imran Khan, for failing to send a senior minister to the scene.
“People are dying every day,” said Mian Iftikhar Hussain, a former provincial minister, as he visited the church and tried to comfort grieving protesters. “The government seems to be absent. The chief minister and other ministers should visit the church.”
After the interior minister reached Peshawar, he declared a three-day period of national mourning.
Hundreds of Christians and activists from various civil society groups protested on the streets of the eastern city of Lahore in the hours after the attack. They blocked roads in the city as they strongly condemned the violence.
“We have not been protected,” said Pitras Masih, a young laborer who had a wooden cross in his hand and a chain with a cross around his neck. “We want justice.”
Another protester, Amina Bibi, from Joseph Colony, said, “Pakistan is our country and they should not kill Pakistanis.”
Others held aloft placards demanding justice. “There is a uniform behind this terrorism,” said one placard.
Waqar Gillani contributed reporting from Lahore, Pakistan.