(CHANGING DEATH TOLL, CHANGING DATELINE AND BYLINE, ADDS MORE INFO AND REACTIONS)
By BosNewsLife Asia Service with BosNewsLife Special Correspondent Xavier P. William reporting from Peshawar, Pakistan
PESHAWAR, PAKISTAN (BosNewsLife)– A suicide bomb attack rocked a historic church in northwest Pakistan Sunday, September 22, killing as many as 85 people and injuring more than 140 others following several anti-Christian incidents in this heavily Islamic nation.
Witnesses and police said a pair of suicide bombers blew themselves up outside the All Saints Church in the violence-plagued city of Peshawar, about 120 kilometers (75 miles) from the country’s capital, Islamabad.
The deadliest attack against Pakistani Christians in recent years happened while hundreds of worshipers were coming out of the church in the city’s Kohati Gate district after services to get a free meal of rice offered on the front lawn, a top government administrator, Sahibzada Anees, told reporters.
“As the priest ended the mass and we were going out suddenly there were two explosions,” said John Javed, an eyewitness. “There were bodies of people around the church and holes in the walls. It was chaos. The injured were shouting and people picked up the wounded and rushed them to hospital,” he told BosNewsLife.
Among the dead and injured were also women and children, doctors said. Survivors could be seen crying and hugging each other, while the white walls of the famed All Saints Church were pockmarked with holes likely caused by ball bearings or other metal objects contained in the bombs.
Reporters said blood stained the floor and was splashed on the walls, while plates filled with rice were scattered across the ground.
Church members claimed police had not provided sufficient security despite repeated requests. The church’s own security forces were unable to stop the attackers.
The Bishops Council of Pakistan and the Catholic Church said they would close their educational institutions for three days to mourn the victims.
Christian mission and advocacy groups Masihi Foundation Pakistan (MF) and Life For All Pakistan (LFA) said the “sad incident” underscored that “Pakistan is in the grip of terrorism.”
In a statement to BosNewsLife, the groups urged Christians across Pakistan “to protest in peace” and not to provoke violence. “Our faith teaches us peace, to forgive those who trespass against us. It is time to unite and pray for the grieving families.” Christians were seen protesting and praying in several cities, while in Peshawar 81 of the 85 victims were laid to rest in several graves.
Though there was no immediate claim of responsibility for the bloodshed, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, of which Peshawar is the capital, has seen growing influence of Islamic extremists, Christians have said. It is also the site of clashes between Pakistani security forces and militants.
Earlier this month, the Taliban group claimed responsibility for a roadside bomb in the province that killed a top Pakistani general, just a day after officials announced plans to withdraw troops from the region and pursue peace talks with Taliban militants.
However, “It is time to think whether there should be a dialogue with people who support such a barbaric act,” MF and LFA told BosNewsLife.
Sunday’s blasts also came amid wider concerns over Islamic attacks against Christians who comprise some three percent of the population in the South Asian nation of 193 million.
Last week, September 14, a Muslim in Karachi reportedly slit a Christian’s throat as police and others looked on. The 58-year-old Boota Masih, who worked as a gold scavenger in Karachi’s Liaquatabad Gold Market for 30 years, was allegedly killed by Muhammad Asif for being “an infidel who blasphemed against Muhammad.”
Police have been reluctant to immediately detain the suspect, citing security concerns. Masih leaves behind five daughters and two sons, Christians said.
Critics say Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy legislation and policies have encouraged violence against minority Christians, including high-level officials.
This week at least one suspect linked to killing Pakistan’s first Christian to become a federal cabinet member, Shahbaz Bhatti, reportedly admitted the crime.
Paul Bhatti, brother of the slain Minister for Minority Affairs, said security officials and a senior government minister told him a suspect belonging to terrorist group Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) had confessed to murdering Bhatti in 2011.
The governor of Pakistan’s Punjab province, Salman Taseer, was also assassinated in an attack linked to militants in 2011 for criticizing the country’s blasphemy legislation.
(Editor: Stefan J. Bos at BosNewsLife News Center)
(BosNewsLife, the first truly independent news agency covering persecuted Christians, is ‘Breaking the News for Compassionate Professionals’ since 2004).
Help BosNewsLife to be the voice of the voiceless. Click here for a subscription.