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World >

Death toll rises after attack on Pakistan church

Madeleine Davies

by Madeleine Davies

Posted: 23 Sep 2013 @ 02:06

A SUICIDE bombing at a church in Peshawar on Sunday has been described as the deadliest attack ever against Christians in Pakistan.

At least 80 people were killed in the attack on All Saints', part of the United Church of Pakistan. Victims included 34 women and seven children. More than 100 have been wounded.

Security sources have reported that two suicide bombers carried out the attack, which took place as worshippers left the church after the service to receive free food being distributed on the lawn outside. The diocese of Peshawar said that children who attended Sunday School and choir members were among the dead.

The Bishop of Peshawar, the Rt Revd Humphrey S. Peters, said that the attack represented "the total failure of the new Government of KPK" (Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the province of which Peshawar is the capital). It had "failed to provide security to the minorities". He has announced a three-day period of mourning.

The Jundullah arm of the Taliban has claimed responsibility for the attack. Ahmad Marwat, who identified himself as the group's spokesman, told The Associated Press by telephone: "All non-Muslims in Pakistan are our target, and they will remain our target as long as America fails to stop drone strikes in our country."

The Pakistani Taliban condemned the attack. The Pakistani government is currently pursuing a strategy of seeking peace talks with the Taliban.

On Sunday, the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Nawaz Sharif, said: "The terrorists have no religion, and targeting innocent people is against the teachings of Islam and all religions."

The Pakistan Ulema Council, comprising Muslim clerics and scholars, said that it was "standing with our Christian brothers in this tragedy".

On Monday, Titus Presler, the principal of Edwardes College, the only college of the Church of Pakistan, situated less than two miles from All Saints', reported on his blog that students and alumni were among the dead. The number was yet to be determined. His secretary had reported a "chaotic scene" at the Lady Reading Hospital, where staff were struggling to cope with the wounded.

On Sunday, Wilson Chowdhry, who chairs the British Pakistani Christian Association, said: "This suffering which has reached genocidal proportions must come to an end. Serious international intervention is required to prevent the total extermination of Christians from Pakistan." He also called for a "rethink" of asylum policy in the UK.

The Archbishop of Canterbury wrote on Monday to the Moderator of the Church of Pakistan, the Bishop of Raiwind, the Rt Revd Samuel Azariah:  "My heart goes out to all those bereaved and injured by this terrible attack. I pray for the peace of Pakistan and the protection of Christ's people. 

"With the people of Peshawar I join in calling for the Pakistan government and all people of good will to ensure that communities may go about their daily lives in safety, and that the perpetrators are brought to justice."

On Sunday, the secretary-general of the UN, Ban Ki Moon, said that he was "deeply concerned" about repeated acts of violence against religious and ethnic minorities in Pakistan.

He urged authorities to continue taking steps to build tolerance and strengthen relationships between diverse religious and ethnic communities in the country.

Peshawar, situated in north-western Pakistan near the border with Afghanistan, is vulnerable to acts of terror. In 2009, a suicide-bomber killed himself and five others at a checkpoint near Edwardes College. In March, Bishop Peter led 2000 Christians on a march as part of a nationwide protest demanding improved security for Christians, after a mob set alight two churches, and more than 150 homes, in a Christian district of Lahore.

All Saints', opened by Christian missionaries in 1883, is situated inside the Kohati Gate of the old walled city of Peshawar. It was designed to reflect the local Islamic architecture, with a dome and minarets.

On Monday, the Bishop of Pontefract, the Rt Revd Tony Robinson, who chairs the Archbishop of Canterbury's Pakistan Focus Group, said: "I think this is the worst case that we have had of an attack on a church, although for many years now this has been part of a pattern of attacks on Christians, both at worship and in their homes. We hope that the Pakistani government will try to protect Christians in that country, who are trying to live peaceful lives in that context."

He said that it was "very difficult for the government in Pakistan to protect every church"; but the rise of terror groups "may mean they need to be more proactive than they have been".

Pakistan is home to 5.3 million Christians in a population of 180 million. The 2013 annual report of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom recommended that the US secretary of state re-designate Pakistan as a "country of particular concern". It warned: "Sectarian and religiously-motivated violence is chronic . . . and the government has failed to protect members of religious minority communities, as well as the majority faith. Pakistan's repressive blasphemy laws and other religiously discriminatory legislation . . . have fostered an atmosphere of violent extremism and vigilantism."

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