PESHAWAR, PAKISTAN – The death toll from a twin suicide bombing on a church in Pakistan rose to 81 Monday, as Christians protested across the country to demand better protection for their community.
The attack on All Saints Church in the northwestern city of Peshawar after a service Sunday, claimed by the Pakistani Taliban, is believed to be the deadliest ever to target Pakistan’s small Christian minority.
Dr. Arshad Javed of the city’s main Lady Reading Hospital said the death toll had risen to 81 overnight, including 37 women. A total of 131 people were wounded.
Christians demonstrated in cities around Pakistan, including Karachi and Faisalabad, to protest against the violence and demand better protection from the authorities.
In Islamabad more than 100 protesters blocked a major city highway for several hours during the Monday morning rush hour, causing long tailbacks.
Pakistan’s umbrella Taliban movement claimed responsibility, saying it had set up a new faction, Junood ul-Hifsa, to kill foreigners to avenge U.S. drone strikes on Taliban and al-Qaida operatives in the country’s tribal areas along the Afghan border.
“We carried out the suicide bombings at Peshawar church and will continue to strike foreigners and non-Muslims until drone attacks stop,” Ahmad Marwat, a spokesman for the group, said by telephone.
In June, the group claimed responsibility for killing 10 foreign climbers at a base camp of Nanga Parbat, the second highest mountain in Pakistan after K-2.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif strongly condemned the “cruel” attack, saying it violated the tenets of Islam.
Pope Francis also spoke out against the violence, calling it “a bad choice of hatred and war,” while Pakistan’s Ulema Council, an association of leading Muslim scholars, branded the attack “shameful.”
Paul Bhatti, the former minister for inter-faith harmony, and provincial lawmaker Fredrich Azeem Ghauri both said the attack was the deadliest ever targeting Christians in Pakistan.
The small and largely impoverished Christian community suffers discrimination in the overwhelmingly Muslim-majority nation but bombings against them are extremely rare.
The 400 or so worshippers were exchanging greetings after the service when the bombers struck, littering the church with blood, body parts and pages from the Bible.
The walls were pockmarked with ball bearings that had been packed into the bombs to cause maximum carnage in the busy church.
Sectarian violence between majority Sunni and minority Shiite Muslims is on the rise in Pakistan but Sunday’s bombings will fuel fears the already beleaguered Christian community could be increasingly targeted.
Islamist militants have carried out hundreds of bombings targeting security forces and minority Muslim groups they regard as heretical, but attacks on Christians have previously largely been confined to grenade attacks and occasional riots.
Ghauri said there were about 200,000 Christians in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, of whom 70,000 live in Peshawar.
Only around 2 percent of the country’s population of 180 million are Christian. The community complains of growing discrimination.