A pair of suicide bombers blew themselves up amid hundreds of worshippers at a historic church in northwestern Pakistan on Sunday, killing 78 people in the deadliest-ever attack against the country's Christian minority.
A wing of the Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility for the bombing, raising new questions about the government's push to strike a peace deal with the militants to end a decade-long insurgency that has killed thousands of people.
The Jundullah arm of the Taliban said they would continue to target non-Muslims until the United States stopped drone attacks in Pakistan's remote tribal region. The latest drone strike came Sunday, when missiles hit a pair of compounds in the North Waziristan tribal area, killing six suspected militants.
The attack on the All Saints Church, which wounded 141 people, occurred as worshippers were leaving after services to get a free meal of rice offered on the front lawn, said a top government administrator, Sahibzada Anees.
A man cries at the death of his brother at the site of a suicide blast at a church in Peshawar. (Reuters Photo)
"There were blasts and there was hell for all of us," said Nazir John, who was at the church in the city's Kohati Gate district along with at least 400 other worshippers. "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."
Survivors wailed and hugged one another in the wake of the blasts. The white walls of the church, which first opened in the late 1800s, were pockmarked with holes caused by ball bearings contained in the bombs to cause maximum damage. Blood stained the floor and the walls. Plates filled with rice were scattered across the ground.
The attack was carried out by two suicide bombers who detonated their explosives almost simultaneously, said police officer Shafqat Malik.
The 78 dead included 34 women and seven children, said Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan. Another 37 children were among the 141 wounded, he said.
The number of casualties from the blasts was so high that the hospital ran short of caskets for the dead and beds for the wounded, said Mian Iftikhar Hussain, a former information minister of surrounding Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province who was on the scene.
A woman mourns the death of her son at the site of a suicide blast at a church in Peshawar. (Reuters Photo)
"This is the deadliest attack against Christians in our country," said Irfan Jamil, the bishop of the eastern city of Lahore.
Pope Francis led several thousand people in a prayer for the victims while on a visit to Sardinia. Those who carried out the attack, he said, "took the wrong choice, one of hatred and war."
One of the wounded, John Tariq, who lost his father in the attack, demanded of those behind the bombing: "What have we done wrong to these people? Why are we being killed?"
Ahmad Marwat, who identified himself as the spokesman for the Jundullah wing of the Pakistani Taliban, claimed responsibility for the attack.
"All non-Muslims in Pakistan are our target, and they will remain our target as long as America fails to stop drone strikes in our country," Marwat told The Associated Press by telephone from an undisclosed location.
Pakistani Christians stage a protest in Karachi following the two suicide bomb attacks on a Church in Peshawar(AFP Photo)
Jundullah has previously claimed responsibility for attacks on minority Shiite Muslims in southwestern Baluchistan province. Hard-line Sunni extremists like the Taliban consider Shiites to be heretics.
The bishop in Peshawar, Sarfarz Hemphray, announced a three-day mourning period and blamed the government and security agencies for failing to protect the country's Christians.
"If the government shows will, it can control this terrorism," said Hemphray. "We have been asking authorities to enhance security, but they haven't paid any heed."
Hundreds of Christians burned tires in the street in the southern city of Karachi to protest the bombing.
Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif condemned the attack in a statement sent to reporters, saying, "The terrorists have no religion and targeting innocent people is against the teachings of Islam and all religions."
"Such cruel acts of terrorism reflect the brutality and inhumane mindset of the terrorists," he said.
Islamic militants have carried out dozens of attacks across the country since Sharif took office in June, even though he has made clear that he believes a peace deal with the Pakistani Taliban is the best way to tamp down violence in the country.
Pakistan's major political parties endorsed Sharif's call for negotiations earlier this month. But the Taliban have said the government must release militant prisoners and begin pulling troops out of the northwest tribal region that serves as their sanctuary before they will begin talks.
There are many critics of peace talks who point out that past deals with the Taliban have fallen apart and simply given the militants time to regroup.
"I don't think appeasement will work," said Farhatullah Babar, a senior leader of the main opposition group, the Pakistan People's Party. "This is a message from them that they don't believe in negotiations. If they don't, we should also stand up and fight them."
Supporters of negotiations say they are the only way forward since military operations against the Taliban in the tribal region have failed to subdue them.
A Pakistani woman mourns as she holds the lifeless body of her granddaughter, a victim of a suicide attack on the church in Peshawar. (AP Photo)
Sharif defended the government's decision to push for peace talks but acknowledged the effort didn't seem to be working.
"It was not a bad thing, I think, to do a good job with a good intention," Sharif told reporters outside the Pakistan High Commission in London. "But the regret is that the thinking, the desire the government had, is not capable to make progress."
The US has repeatedly demanded that Pakistan take stronger action against Islamic militants, especially members of the Afghan Taliban who use the country as a base for cross-border attacks on American troops in Afghanistan.
The US has carried out several hundred drone attacks against Taliban militants and their allies in Pakistan's tribal region. The strike on Sunday took place in the Shawal area of North Waziristan, the main sanctuary for militants in the country, said Pakistani intelligence officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.
Pakistani officials regularly decry drone attacks as a violation of the country's sovereignty, but the government is known to have secretly supported some of the strikes in the past, especially ones that have targeted Pakistani Taliban militants at war with the state.
The Pakistani and Afghan Taliban are allies, but have focused their fight on opposite sides of the border.
Attacks on Christian areas occur sporadically around the country but Sunday's assault, in a densely populated Christian residential area in the old walled city in Peshawar, was the most violent in recent history.
In 2009, 40 houses and a church were set ablaze by a mob of 1,000 Muslims in the town of Gojra in Punjab province. At least seven Christians were burnt to death. Seventeen Christians were killed in an attack on a church in Bahawalpur in 2001.
Some residents, enraged at the lack of adequate security at the church, took to the streets immediately after the attack, burning tyres and shouting slogans.
Shops were closed in the Kohati Gate area where several other churches are located.
"Terrorists have not spared mosques, temples and churches. Please have mercy on us," one man outside the church, his face distorted by fear and anger, told Pakistan's private Geo television channel.
Protests by Christians were also reported in other cities including the violent port city of Karachi and Multan. A bomb disposal security source said there were two explosions carried out by a pair of attackers. More than 600 parishioners were inside the church for the service.
(With Reuters inputs)