Pakistan’s beleaguered Christian community suffered its worst ever attack on Sunday after two suicide bombers attacked a landmark 19th century church in Peshawar, killing 75 people and wounding dozens more.
The attack, which has been condemned across Pakistan’s political spectrum and sparked protests by Christians around the country, represents a major challenge to the government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and its attempts to negotiate a peace settlement with militants.
The bombers struck soon after Sunday service, just as hundreds of worshippers were streaming out of the All Saints Church in the northwestern city’s old quarter. The church is one of the most famous in Pakistan, noted for its colonial history (it was built in 1883 by a British officer) and its elegant, white-walled and domed design that resembles many of the old mosques in this Muslim-majority country.
Eyewitnesses described hearing two loud blasts in succession, then the horrific scenes depressingly familiar to victims of terrorism across Pakistan: dust rising in the air to meet thick black clouds of smoke that eventually dissipate to reveal the dead. Body parts were flung at a distance; parishioners lay wounded, dead or dying in pools of blood.
As the survivors of the attack struggled to transport the victims to an overcrowded hospital nearby, their co-religionists came out onto the streets in the country’s major cities. Gunfire was heard on the streets of Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city, as Christians protested there. Other protests took place in Lahore, Faisalabad and Multan.
Pakistan’s long-suffering Christian community is among the country’s most vulnerable minorities. In Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous province, many Christians are converts and formerly low-caste Hindus branded as “unclean” by bigots. Many are able to find jobs only as sanitation workers or performing other menial tasks.
Sunday’s attack is the second major bombing of a Christian church in northwest Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. A church was bombed in Mardan last year. In the past four years, there have also been repeated attacks on Christians in which unsubstantiated charges of blasphemy are hurled at a member of the community before a mob torches Christian homes, forcing residents to flee. In 2011, Shahbaz Bhatti, the only Christian member of the Cabinet at the time, was brutally gunned down outside his mother’s home in Islamabad for his opposition to Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy laws.
The government, political class and media are united in their condemnation of Sunday’s attack, whose perpetrators have yet to be identified. But many voices also warn that the bombing — the latest in a series of major attacks on religious minorities this year, with Shi‘ites hardest hit — should force the government to reflect on its recent attempts to strike a peace deal with militants.
“I strongly condemn this cowardly attack,” says Bushra Gohar, a politician from the liberal and Pashtun-dominated Awami National Party. “Talk with whom? And for what purpose?” She said that it was “high time” that the government “snap out of its state of denial.”
A mooted peace deal with the Pakistani Taliban already suffered a major setback a week ago after a senior general commanding forces in the troubled Malakand area was killed, along with two other officers.