PESHAWAR: The death toll from a double suicide bombing on a church in Peshawar 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 provincial capital of northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa after a service on Sunday is believed to be the deadliest ever to target the country’s small Christian minority.
Doctor Arshad Javed of the city's main Lady Reading hospital told AFP the death toll had risen to 81 overnight, including 37 women. A total of 131 people were wounded.
Meanwhile, a four-member committee which was formed to collect evidence from eye-witnesses has already started visiting the families of the victims.
Reports said two suicide bombers carrying hand-grenades and pistols entered the church and targeted the worshippers. Their ages were reported to be between 20 to 22.
Christians demonstrated in cities around Pakistan to protest against the violence and demand better protection from the authorities.
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”.
Former minister for inter-faith harmony Paul Bhatti and provincial lawmaker Fredrich Azeem Ghauri both said the attack was the deadliest ever targeting Christians in Pakistan.
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.
There were conflicting reports over which militant organisation carried out the attack.
According to foreign news agencies, a wing of the Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack, saying it would continue to target non-Muslims until the United States stopped drone attacks in the tribal region.
AFP reported that the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) had set up a new faction, called the Junood ul-Hifsa, to kill foreigners to avenge US drone strikes on Taliban and Al Qaeda operatives.
“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, told AFP by telephone.
Reuters, however, described Marwat as a member of the TTP’s Jundullah group and quoted him as saying: “(The Christians) are the enemies of Islam, therefore we target them. We will continue our attacks on non-Muslims on Pakistani land.”
Provincial lawmaker Ghauri said there were about 200,000 Christians in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, of whom 70,000 lived in Peshawar.
Only around two per cent of Pakistan’s 180 million population is Christian. The community complains of growing discrimination.
In the town of Gojra in Punjab province in 2009, a mob burned 77 houses and killed seven people after rumours that a copy of the holy Quran had been desecrated during a Christian marriage ceremony.
Rimsha Masih, a Christian girl who was arrested for alleged blasphemy last year, fled to Canada with her family in June after the charges were dropped.