Pakistan’s Christian community is reeling after at least 78 people were killed and 120 wounded in a double suicide blast attack outside a church in Peshawar – the deadliest ever assault on one of the country’s long-persecuted minorities.
Witnesses said they heard two blasts as people made their way out of the historic church in the city’s Kohati Gate district. A free lunch was being served to the congregation on the front lawn. Police later said they had discovered the remains of two suicide bombers who had approached the crowds and detonated their bombs.
Television images showed widespread damage and bloodied members of the congregation being helped into ambulances. Officials said there had been hundreds of people at the church on Sunday morning. In the aftermath, rice and Bible pages littered the scene.
“Thank God that this happened after the service was over,” Samuel Asghar, the archdeacon of the Diocese of Peshawar, told The Independent, explaining that the toll would otherwise have been even higher. “We had received no warning. This happened suddenly… Please pray for the families and those suffering.”
The attack at the All Saints Church in the north-western city happened around 11.30am on Sunday. Reports said the white walls of the Anglican church, which dates from 1883, were pocked with holes most likely caused by ball bearings packed into the devices.
While Pakistan’s Christian community has suffered many attacks in recent years, such attacks have usually been in private homes following allegations of blasphemy. In 2009, a church and 40 houses were set ablaze by a mob of 1,000 Muslims in the town of Gojra.
Sunday’s bomb attack stunned many with the scale of its devastation and was widely condemned by political and community leaders. Christian communities in several parts of the country launched protests. On a visit to Sardinia, Pope Francis led several thousand people in a special prayer for the victims of the attack.
Nazir John, a member of the congregation, told Associated Press: “There were blasts and there was hell for all of us. When I got my senses back, I found nothing but smoke, dust, blood and screaming people. I saw severed body parts and blood all around.”
Mian Iftikhar Hussain, a former information minister of surrounding Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, told reporters the number of casualties from the blasts was so high that the hospital treating the victims was running out of beds for the wounded and caskets for the dead.
On Sunday evening it was reported that a faction of the Pakistan Taliban had claimed responsibility for the attack. Various extremist groups have been blamed for previous attacks on Pakistan’s Christian community, which accounts for about 1.5 per cent of the population.
The attack comes as Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is seeking to open the way for talks with the Pakistan Taliban as part of a broader peace deal. On Saturday, a former leader of the Afghan Taliban was released from Pakistani custody as part of attempt to help the peace process in Pakistan.
The major political parties all endorsed Mr Sharif’s call for negotiations earlier this month. But the Taliban has said the government must release militant prisoners and begin pulling troops out of the north-west tribal region that serves as its sanctuary before it will begin discussions.
Facing accusations that he is wrong to negotiate, Mr Sharif condemned Sunday’s attack, saying: “The terrorists have no religion and targeting innocent people is against the teachings of Islam and all religions.”