PESHAWAR, Pakistan — Two explosions outside a crowded church in northwest Pakistan just as Sunday services ended killed at least 60 people and wounded more than 100, authorities said, one of Pakistan’s worst attacks against Christians in years.
While officials placed the death toll at more than 60, humanitarian organizations reported handling at least 75 corpses. [Updated, 7:35 a.m. PDT Sept. 22: Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Provincial Home Secretary Akhtar Ali Shah now said in his latest statement that the official death toll had reached 75.]
The dead and injured, including women, children and police officers, overwhelmed the emergency ward of Peshawar’s Lady Reading Hospital, the city’s largest hospital, where television footage showed hallways filled with corpses, badly wounded patients and women and children crying over the charred bodies of relatives. Many bodies were in such bad shape they could not be easily identified, doctors said.
By midafternoon, the Al-Kidmat Foundation charity had packed 78 corpses into coffins, said Hameed Ullah, the group’s senior coordinator, as it scrambled to collect more coffins from around the city. “The death toll may rise,” said Zaheerul Islam, Peshawar’s deputy commissioner.
No group claimed immediate responsibility for Sunday’s attack, but militant Islamist groups active in the area came under suspicion. Muhammad Ali, Peshawar’s chief of police, told reporters the attack was carried out by two suicide bombers. Generally at the end of Sunday services, he said, the 400 to 500 worshipers usually in attendance at All Saints Church of Pakistan, one of Peshawar’s oldest, are advised to break up into groups for their safety as they head out into the street.
“As they were dispersing in groups, a young male [suicide bomber] tried to attack one of the groups,” he said. “A police official on duty attempted to stop him but he blew himself up. The second one was also a suicide blast. We have recovered the head of one of the bombers.”
Within hours of the attack in Peshawar, the capital of restive Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, protests by Christian groups erupted in major cities across Pakistan Sunday afternoon, including Karachi, Peshawar, Islamabad and Quetta. Christians make up less than 3% of the country’s 193 million population.
While Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, Sufi Muslims and other minorities have come under attack from Islamist militants throughout the country in recent years, Christians haven’t generally been targeted in Peshawar or other parts of the insurgent wracked province.
Television footage showed dozens of protesters in Peshawar blocking a main road, some waving sticks and hitting their chests and faces, as they burned tires and chanted “We want peace,” and “Death to terrorism.” Several hundred miles away in Karachi more than 100 protesters blocked a main highway holding placards that read: “Give us security” and “We want justice.”
Worshipers outside the church described an almost instantaneous transition from calm to carnage. “I was in the corridor of the church compound when the first explosion occurred, causing panic,” said Kamran Sadiq, a worshiper who suffered shrapnel injuries, wearing a white, blood-stained shalwar kameez. He estimated that 350 people were in attendance at the time of the attack, although some placed it closer to 500.
Other worshipers, including church coordinator Hayat Bhati, criticized poor government security and the official policy of appeasing militants. Islamabad has released nearly three dozen Taliban from prisons in recent weeks in a bid to bolster Afghan peace talks.
“The government is responsible for this bloodshed,” said John William, a priest with the Church of Pakistan helping wounded in the hospital. “Instead of punishing militants, they are released from jails.”
Asked why police weren’t doing more to protect the public, police chief Ali told reporters his officers are also victims, with about 800 police officers having died in recent militant attacks. “We are doing our best, but how can we stop these suicide bombers,” he added.
As Lady Reading Hospital became overwhelmed Sunday afternoon and blast victims were transferred to Khyber Teaching Hospital, the city’s second-largest health facility, frustrated relatives protested against the lack of hospital facilities and poor response by doctors.
Catholic groups and the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government announced a three-day mourning period. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif condemned the attack in Peshawar’s densely packed Kohati Gate district, a mixed residential and shopping neighborhood. “Terrorists have no religion, and targeting innocent people is against the teachings of Islam and all religions,” he said in a statement. “Such cruel acts of terrorism reflect the brutality and inhumane mind-set of the terrorists.”
Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, the site of numerous clashes between militants and Pakistani security forces, is a stronghold for Islamic extremists. A roadside bomb earlier this month in the province killed a top Pakistani brigadier general just hours after officials announced plans to withdraw troops from the region and pursue peace talks with Taliban militants.
Sharif has outlined a non-confrontational approach to Islamic militancy, calling for a peace deal with the largest group, the Taliban, that he sees as the best way to reduce violence. While his approach was backed by the country’s major political parties, the Taliban has raised the stakes, calling for the release of militant prisoners and the removal of troops from the northwest tribal region before it agrees to talk.
“What was our sin?” said one mourner at the hospital. “Why we are not safe inside our own church?”
Special correspondent Ali reported from Peshawar and Times staff writer Magnier reported from New Delhi. Special correspondent Nasir Khan in Islamabad contributed to this report.