PESHAWAR (Agencies) - A twin suicide bombing killed more than 80 people and injured 130 others at a church service in Peshawar on Sunday in one of the deadliest attacks on Christians in the country.
Two suicide bombers entered inside the All Saints Church and detonated their explosive jackets at around 11:45am at the conclusion of a service when hundreds of worshippers were coming out to get a free meal of rice on the front lawn, police and eye witnesses said.
At the time of the blasts around 400 worshipers were present at the church, which is commonly known as Pakistan Church and is situated in Kohati Gate area. The blasts were so powerful that their boom echoed even in the suburbs of the Peshawar city.
There was blood all around as the injured cried and screamed amid scattered body parts of the dead, witnesses said. Edhi ambulances and Rescue 1122 officials shifted the terrified injured to the Lady reading Hospital, where sources said that dozens of the injured were in critical condition. Nearly 40 women and several children were among the dead.
Lady Reading Hospital Chief Executive Doctor Arshad Javed told the media that 72 people had been killed and around 130 wounded. Earlier, Peshawar Commissioner Sahibzada Anees had confirmed death of 61 persons, saying that many of the injured, including woman and children, were critical. Peshawar DCO Zaheerul Islam said that one of the policeman deputed at church security was killed and another sustained critical injuries.
Schoolteacher Nazir Khan, 50, said the service had just ended and at least 400 worshippers were greeting each other when there was a huge 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 told AFP.
An AFP reporter saw shreds of human flesh and bloodstains on the walls and floor of the church, whose windows had been ripped apart by the blast. Pages of a Bible were scattered near the altar and rice meals mingled with dust on the floor amid shattered benches. Walls were gouged with ball bearings used in the explosives, he said.
Red alert was declared across Peshawar and heavy contingent of security forces and police deployed around the blast site. Police tightened security of other churches in city and cantonment areas. Markets and shops were closed down in Kohati Gate and Qissa Khwani Bazaar as fear gripped the area after the incident. Thousands of enraged protesters took to the GT Road, Khyber Bazaar, Qissa Khwani Bazaar and set ablaze tyres to block traffic.
Additional Inspector General Shafqat Malik of the Bomb Disposal Squad told media persons that body parts of the attackers had been recovered and sent for forensic examinations. He said that around 12 kilogram explosives were used in the attack. City Police Chief Muhammad Ali Babakhel said the first attacker exploded his vest when he was stopped by police officials and after three seconds, the second bomber struck inside the church. A case had been registered and police had started investigations.
Local people said that the attack came due to security lapse as there were only two police personnel deputed there. Kohati Gate is one of the sensitive localities where at least three churches and several Imambargahs are located. Church Reverend Ijaz Gill, who was also injured in the attack, told reporters that the church was built in 1883 and it is one the old churches of Pakistan where worshipper from the surrounding areas come for prayers each Sunday.
Taliban movement claimed responsibility, saying it had set up a new faction, Junood ul-Hifsa, to kill foreigners to avenge US drone strikes on Taliban and Al-Qaeda operatives. “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.
KPK health minister Shaukat Ali Yousufzai said that the provincial government had announced a three-day period of mourning. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif condemned the “cruel” attack, saying it violated the tenets of Islam. 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.
Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, in general, and its capital Peshawar, in particular, has borne the brunt of a bloody insurgency in recent years. Commissioner Sahibzada 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.”
Arrangements for the funeral of the blast victims were being made at the St John’s Cathedral Church. Christians in Karachi, Lahore, Multan and other cities also staged protest rallies to condemn the killings and demand state protection for their lives and properties. In the southern port city of Karachi angry protesters clashed with police when they tried to clear a road in Isa Nagri, a low-income Christian neighbourhood.
Sectarian violence between majority Sunni and minority Shia Muslims is on the rise in Pakistan. 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.
Pakistan’s Ulema Council, an association of leading Muslim scholars, strongly condemned the church attack and said killing innocent people breaches the tenets of Islam. “It is an extremely shameful attack which has shamed all Pakistanis and Muslims,” Allama Tahir Mehmood Ashrafi, chief of the council, told AFP. “There is no room for such terrorist acts in Islam.”
Khyber Pakhtunkhwa chief minister and the prime minister strongly condemned the bombings. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif said, “Terrorists have no religion and targeting innocent people is against the teachings of Islam and all religions,” he said in a statement.
The Federal Government has announced three-day mourning over bombing of Peshawar church.