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Double suicide bombing kills 80 in Peshawar

Burials have been taking place in the Pakistani city of Peshawar after a double suicide bombing killed at least 80 people at a church on Sunday.

It is thought to be the deadliest ever attack on Pakistan’s Christians.

Two Islamist militant groups with Taliban links said they ordered the attack to hit back at US drone strikes.

Political and religious leaders condemned the attack, but angry crowds took to the streets denouncing the state’s failure to protect minorities.

On Sunday, demonstrators blocked roads in Peshawar, Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi and rallies are also expected in major cities on Monday.

The BBC’s Aleem Maqbool in Peshawar reports that as mourners reached the site where the coffins bearing the dead are lined up, some broke down on the spot.

Hundreds of women were sitting beside the coffins, clutching them and sobbing, the men hugging and crying, their children looking bewildered, our correspondent reports.

Condemnation of the attack has been pouring in. The government has announced three days of mourning.

Christian groups have said special prayers will be held for the victims. Pope Francis has condemned the atrocity, saying those who carried out the attack made a wrong choice, of hatred and war.

Sunday Mass attacked

Speaking in London on his way to New York to attend the UN’s General Assembly, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif said the attack does not bode well for any intended talks with militants.

And the Pakistani politician, Imran Khan, whose party governs the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, of which Peshawar is the capital, called it an attack on humanity.

He has been criticised for being soft on Taliban militants and favouring talks instead of military action.

At around midday at the historic All Saints church in Kohati Gate, a bustling area of Peshawar, two bombers blew themselves up as hundreds of worshippers who had attended Sunday Mass were leaving.

Sunday’s twin attacks targeted Peshawar’s historic All Saints Church

Witnesses said they heard two blasts, the second more powerful than the first. Suicide vests were later found outside the church, officials said.

Reports say the walls of the church was dimpled from the force of the ball bearings that had been packed into the explosives, in an effort to cause as much damage as possible.

More than 120 people were wounded in the assault.

It is unclear exactly who was behind the attack, with two militant groups claiming responsibility. Jandullah and the Junood ul-Hifsa – both with past links to the Pakistani Taliban – said they ordered the double bombing in retaliation for US drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal north-west.

The Pakistani Taliban, however, condemned the attack. Correspondents say the group frequently denies responsibility for attacks which take a heavy civilian toll.

It is the latest in a series of attacks on Pakistani Christians, who represent about 1.6% of the country’s overwhelmingly Muslim population.

One provincial lawmaker, Fredrich Azeem Ghauri, said there were about 200,000 Christians in the province, of whom 70,000 lived in Peshawar, Agence France-Presse news agency reported.

There have been angry protests around the country against the bombings in Peshawar.

The attackers struck as hundreds of worshippers left the All Saints church in a busy part of the city. More than 120 people were wounded in the assault. There were scenes of grief as relatives gathered to identify their loved ones.

Security has been strengthened outside a number of Pakistani Christian churches following Sunday’s attack. Nevertheless the Pakistani Christian minority feels vulnerable to militant attacks. And the anger of the community has also been stoked with many taking to the streets in protest for a second day. Correspondents say the attack has outraged many people, but there is also a sense of helplessness about the government’s apparent inability to prevent such atrocities.

There were angry scenes outside the church, with friends and relatives denouncing the government, but demonstrations spread rapidly and in Karachi police had to fire tear gas.

Militants in Pakistan have long made religious minorities one of their targets and recent years have seen spiralling sectarian violence between Shias and Sunnis, with Sunni militants often targeting the Shia community.

There have been outbreaks of communal violence in areas where Muslims and Christians co-exist. In march, Muslims in Lahore torched dozens of Christian homes responding to an allegation of blasphemy.

But this latest attack is being described as the first assault of its kind on Christians in recent memory.

There are about 70,000 Christians in the city of Peshawar, capital of deeply conservative Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province
The deadly bombing of a church in Pakistan’s north-western city of Peshawar is unprecedented, but not entirely unexpected considering the community’s history in the country, explains the BBC’s M Ilyas Khan.

Until now, Taliban militants have mostly targeted the places of worship for Muslim minority sects in Pakistan such as Shia Muslims and the Ahmadi sect.

But attacks against the Christians are not uncommon. Some of these have been related to Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy laws, while others appear to have a political motive.

In recent years the assassination of two high-profile Christian politicians also put the plight of this minority in the spotlight.

Vulnerable sector

After Hindus, Christians are Pakistan’s second-largest minority group representing about 1.6% of the country’s overwhelmingly Muslim population.

Large populations are in the southern metropolis of Karachi, and there are countless Christian villages in Pakistan’s heartland of Punjab, in Lahore, the city of Faisalabad. In the deeply conservative north-western province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province there are, according to one lawmaker, 200,000 Christians, of whom 70,000 live in the city of Peshawar.

The majority of Pakistan’s Christians are descended from people who converted from Hinduism centuries ago under the British Raj. Most of those converts had been low-caste Hindus, kept at the lowest rung of society by virtue of their birth and would have converted to escape the fate destined for them within the caste system.

Many in the Christian community are in the poorest sectors of Pakistani society.

Under the Raj many of these converts provided labour in garrison towns – and every cantonment city has an area known as Lal Kurti, traditionally the area where Christians reside.

But to this day the Christian community remains in the poorest sector of Pakistani society, consigned to menial jobs. Entire villages in parts of Punjab are Christian, with inhabitants working as labourers and farmhands.

There are sections of Pakistan’s Christian community that are well off and they came over from Christian Goa under the Raj, are more educated and mainly settled in Karachi. Many of their descendants still work in the corporate sector.

What all of them share is a sense of vulnerability with a number of the wealthier Christians leaving to settle in Canada and Australia as the climate of intolerance in Pakistan becomes more unbearable – and if some Muslims are thinking of leaving, Christians and other minorities will feel the pressure more acutely.

Pre-partition Pakistan was a much more diverse place and levels of tolerance have declined as Pakistani society has been increasingly Islamicised and more homogenous.

Pre-partition Christians could count themselves among minorities that made up 15% of the population. Now minorities fall short of 4% of the country. And with the introduction of Islamist militancy, their situation is that much more urgent.


Since the 1990s, scores of Christians have been convicted for desecrating the Koran or blaspheming against Prophet Muhammad, although experts say most accusations are fuelled by personal disputes.

Rimsha Masih became the first non-Muslim to be acquitted by a court in a blasphemy case when it was discovered that she had been framed. While most of them were awarded death sentences by lower courts, the sentence was often set aside by the higher courts due to lack of evidence, or because the complainants in the case were found to be targeting the community for economic benefits.

Perhaps the best known example is that of Aasia Bibi, a Christian woman from a Punjab village who in 2010 got into an altercation with some Muslim women of the village and was later accused by them of having blasphemed against the prophet.

Then Punjab governor Salman Taseer, who publicly stated that the law had been abused in Aasia Bibi’s case, was murdered by his police guard.

Months later, the country’s minister for minority affairs and a leader of the Christian community, Shahbaz Bhatti, was assassinated for speaking out against the law. The Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility for that murder.

Two years later, a minor Christian girl, Rimsha Masih, became the first non-Muslim to be acquitted by a court in a blasphemy case when it was discovered that she had been framed by a local Muslim cleric.

Accusations of blasphemy have often led to mob violence against Christians.

In 2005, hundreds of Christians had to flee their houses in Faisalabad city after one of the residents was blamed for having burnt the pages of the Koran and the entire neighbourhood was attacked by a mob wielding axes and sticks. Several churches and Christian schools in the city were set on fire.

In 2009, in Gojra town of Punjab, nearly 40 houses and a church were burnt by the mob, and at least eight members of the community were killed, all burnt alive.

Mostly Muslims and Christians co-exist amiably enough without frequent outbreaks of animosity, going to each other’s festivals, sharing community spaces.

Motives behind attacks

Some of the violence against Christians is directly related to the American-led war in Afghanistan, so has an expressly political motive.

Months after the US-led coalition attacked Afghanistan in late 2001, a grenade attack on a chapel inside a Christian mission hospital Taxila city killed four people.

A couple of months later, gunmen executed six workers of a Christian charity after tying and gagging them at their third-floor office in Karachi. These incidents, though isolated, have continued down the years.

It is too early to say which category Sunday’s church attack in Peshawar belongs to, but its timing may be of some significance.

It has happened at a time when Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is about to land in New York on his first visit to the US and the United Nations.

Analysts say the Peshawar bombing will overshadow his visit and raise questions among the international community over his country’s commitment to fight militancy.

This appears to be a repeat of an earlier attack by the militants in which at least nine foreign climbers, including three Chinese, were killed at the Nanga Parbat mountain in June.

But it is the first large-scale attack against Christians which appears to mimic recent deadly assaults on minority Shias in Pakistan.

But the dynamic with that particular enmity is entirely different. Shias in Pakistan are seen as influential and high profile with positions in the military and playing prominent role in the country’s cultural life – they are caught up in what many analysts call a proxy war between Shia Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia.

Pakistan’s Christian and Hindu minorities evoke public sympathy and are not tools of a larger sectarian and ideological battle. They look like part of a militant plan to send a message to the West or embarrass Nawaz Sharif when he heads in that direction.