For hundreds of Christians leaving a Sunday morning worship service at All Saints Church in northwestern Pakistan yesterday, the house of feasting suddenly turned into a house of mourning.
As worshipers moved toward the church lawn for a weekly food distribution, a pair of suicide bombers detonated explosive-laden vests. The blasts killed at least 80 people and wounded more than 140. The dead included at least 34 women and seven children.
“There were blasts and there was hell for all of us,” witness Nazir John told the Associated Press. “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.”
Local bishops called the attack on the Anglican congregation in Peshawar one of the deadliest against Christians in Pakistan.
Members of a branch of the Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility, saying more would come unless the United States stopped drone attacks against militants in tribal regions. A U.S. drone attack on Sunday killed six militants in the North Waziristan region.
“Consider this the first of our actions,” militant commander Ahmed Marwat told reporters. “Whoever is non-Muslim will be targeted.”
The 400 Pakistanis who were the targets of Sunday’s bombing at All Saints Church are a part of the country’s small Christian minority. (Christians comprise less than 2 percent of Pakistan’s population.)
By Sunday afternoon, blood stained the white walls of the Anglican church—founded by missionaries in 1883—and bodies lay strewn across the lawn. A local official said the nearby hospital ran out of beds for the injured and caskets for the dead.
The bishop of Peshawar called for a three-day mourning period, as he criticized the provincial government for failing to protect religious minorities. In March, an Islamic mob burned two churches and more than 150 homes in a Christian district of Lahore.
The 2013 report from the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom called on the U.S. State Department to re-designate Pakistan a country of particular concern for religious oppression: “Pakistan’s repressive blasphemy laws and other religiously discriminatory legislation have fostered an atmosphere of extremism and vigilantism.”
The extremism has reached Muslim targets as well: Over the last decade, the Pakistani Taliban and al-Qaeda affiliates have attacked government officials, soldiers, and members of the Shiite Muslim minority. More than 80 people died when militants bombed two mosques in May 2010, and more than 100 died in bombings targeting Shiite Muslims in January.
For the Christians at All Saints, the sudden violence on Sunday seemed incomprehensible. Some stayed after the attacks to pray in the church. Others prepared to claim the bodies of slain loved ones. “What have we done wrong to these people?” asked John Tariq, a wounded churchgoer who lost his father in the attack. “Why are we being killed?”