ISLAMABAD: In the latest attack on religious minorities in Pakistan, twin Taliban suicide bombers blew themselves up at two Christian churches during Sunday mass in the country’s eastern city of Lahore, leaving at least 15 persons dead and more than 70 injured.
The blasts sparked mob violence in the area in which two other suspected militants were killed and later their bodies were set on fire.
The bombings occurred at Catholic and Christ churches, located around half a kilometre apart, in quick succession in the city’s Youhanabad area, one of Pakistan’s biggest Christian neighbourhoods, a home to about a million Christians.
The first suicide bomber detonated his strapped-explosives outside the main gate of St John’s Catholic Church after the security guard prevented him from entering the church where Christian families had gathered for Sunday service, a senior police officer. The second blast occurred minutes later in the compound of Christ Church.
Nabila Ghazanfar, a spokesperson for the Punjab police, said the deaths from the attack on Sunday included 11 Christians, two police officers deployed for security outside the churches and the two suspects beaten to death by the mob, in addition to the two bombers.
Television images showed police officials struggling to keep the angry crowd away from one of the men who was later lynched.
Dr Muhammad Saeed, the chief doctor at Lahore’s General Hospital, where 61 of the wounded were taken, said that many were in critical condition.
Jamaat-ur-Ahrar, a Pakistani Taliban (TTP) splinter group, claimed responsibility for the attacks. Ihsanullah Ihsan, the group’s spokesman, said it was the work of two suicide bombers.
“The Tehreek-e-Taliban Jamaat-ur-Ahrar accepts responsibility for the suicide attacks on the churches in Lahore,” Ihsan said in a statement emailed to reporters.
“We promise that until an Islamic system is put into place in Pakistan such attacks will continue. If Pakistan’s rulers think they can stop us, they should try to do so,” the statement added.
In the tense aftermath of the blasts, violent protests erupted in the neihbourhood. Angry mob lynched two persons suspected of being accomplices of the attackers.
Over 4,000 Christians later spread across the city’s streets, with many of them armed with clubs, smashing vehicles and attacking a Metro bus station, a signature project of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) party. Christians also took to the streets in other cities, including Karachi, where around 200 protesters blocked a main road and burnt tyres. There were also demonstrations in Peshawar in the northwest, in the central city of Multan and in Quetta in the southwest.
Religious minorities including Shias, Christians, Hindus and Ahmadis have been under violent attack for years in Pakistan. Nearly 100 people were killed in an attack on All Saints Church in Peshawar in September 2013. Christians make up around two per cent of Pakistan’s Muslim population of 180 million. They have been targeted in attacks and riots in recent years, often over allegations of blasphemy.
PM Sharif in a statement condemned the church bombings and “directed provincial government to ensure security of the public and their properties”.
One unidentified witness told Pakistan’s Geo television that the main gate to one of the churches targeted was closed so people were using a smaller gate.
“One bomber exploded himself near that gate, that created chaos and during the course there was another blast,” he said.
Jamatul Ahrar, an offshoot of the Tehreek-e-Taliban, claimed responsibility for the deadly attack, according to reports.
Local television footage showed an angry crowd beating a person they thought was connected to the attack, while others attacked buses in the city. The crowds burned to death one person they believed was involved in the attack and tried to lynch another, said Haider Ashraf, deputy inspector general for Lahore.
Two police who were protecting the churches were also killed in the explosions, which he confirmed were caused by suicide bombers.
A spokesman for the Punjab province government condemned the attacks but also said it was unfortunate that the mob had attacked suspects. He said authorities are reinforcing security at the 481 remaining churches across the city.
Militants appear to be targeting minorities more intensively recently, including attacks on a string of mosques belonging to members of the Shiite Muslim minority sect. In 2013, twin blasts at a church in Peshawar killed 85 people.
“There will be more of such attacks,” warned Ahsanullah Ahsan, a spokesman for the Taliban faction that claimed responsibility for the assault, in a statement emailed to reporters.
Credit: The Times Of India