At least eight people were killed and more than 40 wounded Sunday when a suicide bomber blew himself up inside a church packed for a Nativity service in southwestern Pakistan, officials said.
Witnesses said the bomber detonated his explosives outside the main hall where congregants were observing the Christmas service at Bethel Memorial Methodist Church in Quetta, the capital of the restive province of Baluchistan.
“People were busy in service when the bomber approached the church and blew himself up at the main gate,” said Shahzada Zulfiqar, a Quetta resident. He said two women were among the dead.
Sarfaraz Bugti, the provincial minister responsible for security affairs, said in a message on social media: “God forbid, if the terrorists had succeeded in their plans, more than 400 precious lives would have been at stake.”
The Islamic State terrorist group claimed responsibility for the attack in a statement by its Amaq news agency. It was one of the group’s deadliest attacks against religious minorities in Pakistan this year, following a blast at a Sufi shrine in February that killed more than 70 people.
Initial reports suggested that two assailants had approached the church before the attack. Officials said security personnel shot one to death while another reached the gate of the main hall.
Authorities said they were searching for two other suspects believed to be accomplices.
Rescue teams reached the church to evacuate the dead and wounded. Hospital officials said they received four bodies and about 20 injury victims, four of whom later died of their wounds.
Others received injuries from wooden splinters or shards of glass after the explosion destroyed the church’s doors and windows, said the provincial police chief, Moazzam Ansari.
Islamist militants have often attacked Pakistani Christians, a mostly working-class minority that accounts for less than 2% of the country’s nearly 200 million people, the vast majority of whom are Muslim.
Christian leaders say security threats rise around religious holidays. On Easter Sunday in 2016, Pakistani militants bombed a park in the eastern city of Lahore, killing dozens.
“Arguably, the quick response of the security forces at the church reduced the impact of this attack, but that has done nothing to ease the anxiety that Christians are feeling,” said Wilson Chowdhry, chairman of the British Pakistani Christian Assn., a civic group based in Britain.
Ali is a special correspondent. Times staff writer Shashank Bengali contributed to this report from Mumbai, India.
6 a.m.: Updated with new details and a higher number of wounded.
4:30 a.m.: Updated to raise the death toll from five to eight.
This article was first published at 2:55 a.m.