Pakistani Christians protest after church attack kills 81, country observes 3-day mourning
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The attack on All Saints church in the northwestern city of Peshawar after a service on Sunday, claimed by a Taliban faction, is believed to be the deadliest ever to target Pakistan's small Christian minority.
Doctor Arshad Javed of the city's main Lady Reading hospital said the death toll had risen to 81 overnight, including 37 women. A total of 131 people were wounded.
Christians demonstrated in towns and cities around Pakistan, including Islamabad, Lahore, Karachi, Peshawar and Faisalabad, to protest against the violence and demand better protection from the authorities.
In Islamabad more than 600 protesters blocked a major city highway for several hours during the Monday morning rush hour, causing long tailbacks.
Paul Bhatti, the president of All Pakistan Minorities Alliance (APMA) who was minister for national harmony in the last government, said the attack was the deadliest ever targeting Christians in Pakistan.
"We are very clear that it was an incident of terrorism. Christians are not the only target of terror, whole Pakistan is a victim of terrorism," said Bhatti, whose brother Shahbaz was assassinated in 2011 for speaking out against the country's blasphemy laws.
"Terrorist are targeting everyone, they are beasts. The time has come for Pakistan to take an action against them."
He added Christian schools would close for three days of mourning.
Senior Peshawar police official Najeeb-ur-Rehman said security around churches in the city would be stepped up, but survivors of the bombing spoke of their fears of further violence.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif strongly condemned the "cruel" attack, saying it violated the tenets of Islam and Pope Francis also spoke out against the violence, calling it "a bad choice of hatred and war".
The small and largely impoverished Christian community suffers discrimination in the overwhelmingly Muslim-majority nation but bombings against them are extremely rare.
The 400 or so worshippers were exchanging greetings after the service when the bombers struck, littering the church with blood, body parts and pages from the Bible.
The walls were pockmarked with ball bearings that had been packed into the bombs to cause maximum carnage in the busy church.
Sectarian violence between majority Sunni and minority Shiite Muslims is on the rise in Pakistan but Sunday's bombings will fuel fears the already beleaguered Christian community could be increasingly targeted.
A faction of Pakistan's umbrella Taliban movement, Junood ul-Hifsa, claimed responsibility for Sunday's attack, saying it was to avenge US drone strikes on Taliban and Al-Qaeda operatives in the country's tribal areas along the Afghan border.
"We carried out the suicide bombings at Peshawar church and will continue to strike foreigners and non-Muslims until drone attacks stop," Ahmad Marwat, a spokesman for the group, told AFP by telephone.
Prime Minister Sharif has called for peace talks with the Taliban and two weeks ago won backing from the country's main political parties.
But after a week that began with the militants killing an army general in the northwest and ended with the church attack, some are questioning whether dialogue is the right approach.
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.
Only around two percent of the country's population of 180 million are Christian. The community complains of growing discrimination.
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 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.
Two suicide bombers blew themselves up outside a Christian church in northwest Pakistan on Sunday, killing at least 72 people and wounding scores of others as they left services. The blast took place outside All Saints Church, which dates to the mid-1800s and is the oldest Christian church in Peshawar.
Sunday’s attack occurred around 11 am, as more than 600 worshipers were leaving church grounds. According to security officials, the bombers detonated near the gate of the church, sending body parts and debris through the air.
“I rushed to the site and saw dead bodies and wounded people, mostly women and children screaming,” said Saeed Ullah, 24. “Some bodies were headless, and some parts of bodies were lying on the floor.”
Sunday’s bombing may be the worst attack against Christians worshipers in Pakistan since 2001, when gunmen stormed a Roman Catholic church in southern Punjab and killed 15 people during services. And it was the latest violence against Pakistan’s Christian minority, which increasingly lives in fear of violence, often at the hands of militants.
A splinter group affiliated with Pakistan’s Taliban asserted responsibility for the attack, saying it was in protest against US drone strikes on Pakistani soil.
“We will continue our attacks till the drone strikes are stopped,” said Ahmad Marwat, commander of the Jundallah Group of TTP.
It’s common for militant groups to say their attacks are in response to U.S. drone strikes, which are deeply unpopular in Pakistan. Though there has been an overall decline in US drone strikes this year, the latest suspected strike occurred Sunday, near Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan.
According to security officials, a suspected US drone fired four missiles into a house in south Waziristan, a tribal district known as a safe haven for militants and foreign fighters who often cross the border into Afghanistan. Six militants were killed in the strike, including some foreigners, according to a Pakistani intelligence official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly.
Pakistan’s government condemned the suspected U.S. drone strike, saying such strikes “set dangerous precedents in inter-state relations.”
Arshad Javed, chief executive of Lady Reading Hospital in Peshawar, said many of the dead churchgoers are believed to be women and children. Security officials said an additional 120 people were injured, and they warned that the death toll could rise.
Security officials in Peshawar have been struggling for years to contain several radical Islamist groups operating in the area.
Two suicide bombers Sunday killed at least 43 people and wounded more than 80 at a church in the restive northwestern Pakistani city of Peshawar, officials said.
"The death toll has risen to 43 and there are more than 80 wounded," Doctor Sher Ali, deputy medical superintendent of Peshawar's main Lady Reading Hospital, told AFP.Another hospital official and a senior administration official confirmed the death toll.
A bomb blast outside a church killed at least nine people and wounded 30 others in the restive northwestern Pakistani city of Peshawar on Sunday, officials said.
"We have received nine dead and more than 30 wounded," Jamil Shah, a spokesman for Peshawar's Lady Reading hospital, said.
Two police officials confirmed the bomb blast and casualties.
Voice of Russia, AFP, Washington Post