ISLAMABAD — Twin suicide bombers attacked a Christian congregation in the northwest Pakistani city of Peshawar at the end of Sunday worship services, killing at least 78 worshippers, including 34 women and seven children, and critically wounding 120 others.
One of the attackers stormed the main entrance of All Saints Church in Peshawar’s Kohati Gate area, firing a pistol at police guards, killing one, and tossing a grenade, according to the city’s police chief, Mohammed Ali Babakhel. Prevented from entering the church by police fire, he detonated the 13 pounds of high explosives in the suicide jacket he was wearing.
Thirty seconds later, a second attacker who was already inside detonated an identical suicide jacket in the midst of the terrified congregation.
About half of the 350 worshippers escaped without injury.
No one claimed responsibility immediately for the attack but suspicion fell on members of an alliance of Pakistan Taliban insurgents and al Qaida-affiliated militants.
The terrorist attack in Peshawar was the worst on a religious minority community since a May 2010 attacks on two congregations of followers of the Ahmadi reform branch of Islam, killing 94 people and wounding 120 others.
The attack on the church sparked protests by Christians and other minority communities in Peshawar and other cities across the country, and was condemned by the government, Muslim scholars and celebrities alike.
It was followed shortly after by a CIA drone attack on a suspected militant compound in the North Waziristan tribal area, the last remaining stronghold of the militants in Pakistan after a four-year military counteroffensive involving 150,000 troops.
The U.S. drones fired four missiles into a compound in Shawal, an area of North Waziristan on the border with Afghanistan, killing six suspected militants and wounding three others, security officials said. The identity of those killed was not immediately apparent.
Christians make up roughly two per cent of Pakistan’s estimated 200 million population. They are among the poorest Pakistanis and largely consigned to menial professions, partly because of discrimination by the Muslim majority.
The two communities have mostly co-existed in harmony, but Christians have in recent years increasingly found themselves accused of burning Quranic texts by religious extremists, provoking shooting and grenade attacks, and acts of mob violence by Muslims, including the 2009 arson of a church and 77 Christian homes in the central town of Gojra, in which seven Christians died.
Such accusations have frequently been based on the accounts of a single eyewitness against a Christian woman. More often than not, however, it has later emerged that the accused blasphemer had rejected the sexual advances of a Muslim male who, working with a unscrupulous cleric, had sought revenge.
Blasphemy is punishable by death under laws introduced in the 1980s by the military dictator Gen. Mohammed Zia ul Haq, who championed religious militancy among Afghan rebels fighting Soviet occupation forces.
Haq also fostered discrimination against religious minorities and women, reducing the legal value of their eyewitness statements to half those of male Muslims.
Subsequent attempts by liberal Pakistani politicians to amend the blasphemy laws have been met with violent opposition, including the 2011 assassinations of the governor of Punjab province, Salman Taseer, and the minister for minorities, Shahbaz Bhatti, a Christian.
Moderate members of the Islamic Ideology Council, a Pakistani government-sponsored body of Muslim scholars, earlier this month proposed an amendment to the blasphemy laws that would have made false accusers liable to capital punishment. The move was blocked by conservative clerics, who included those who had worked with Haq to introduce the controversial laws.
Hussain is a McClatchy special correspondent.