The powerful chief of Pakistan’s army has condemned a brutal attack and suicide bombing at a Christian church, calling it an attempt to split the country along religious lines.
Christians across Pakistan also demanded greater protection for minorities and life-long support for the families of the victims and survivors.
Two suicide bombers struck Bethel Memorial Methodist Church while children were rehearsing a Christmas play Dec. 17 in Quetta, Baluchistan, killing nine people and wounding 57. Another 31 patients were treated and released from the trauma center of Sandeman Provincial Hospital.
Islamic State terrorists claimed responsibility for the terrorist attack, while the Baluchistan home minister blamed it on terrorists from neighboring Afghanistan.
The Chief of Army Staff, General Qamar Javed Bajwa said in a statement the attack was “an attempt to cloud Christmas celebrations and create religious cleavages,” Paskistan media reported.
He praised the “effective response by security forces to the attack”, adding the country has to stay “united and steadfast to respond against such heinous attempts”.
Interior Minister Ahsan Iqbal condemned the attack as a sign of “cowardice” and said Pakistan’s enemies wanted to spread violence in the country.
The Catholic Bishop’s National Commission for Justice and Peace in Pakistan condemned “the cowardly and inhuman attack on the church and innocent worshippers”.
In a Dec. 17 statement, the commission extended its condolences to the victims and thanked police and security forces for securing the lives of nearly 400 worshippers present in the church.
It also called on the government to address the “extremist elements and root causes” of intolerance and stressed “the need to tighten measures for the protection of all citizens, especially during this time of Christmas.”
In Lahore, Christian activists staged a demonstration outside the local press club on Dec. 17 holding giant crosses and anti-government posters.
Khalid Shehzad, a Christian human rights activists who organized the protest, said victims should not be offered compensation packages alone.
“We demand the government support the survivors for life. There were no police to stop the terrorists. The government should shift the focus from protecting VIPs to vulnerable religious minorities. We shall remain peaceful and celebrate Christmas with full joy,” he told ucanews.com.
Various Christian political and religious groups announced three days of mourning to express solidarity with the families of the victims.
Moazaam Ansari, chief of Baluchistan police, told reporters that security personnel at the church shot dead one of the attackers while the second one blew himself up near the prayer hall.
Ansari said a third bomber escaped and a search operation was under way.
“Timely action by security forces has averted a major tragedy as over 400 worshippers were present inside the prayer hall at the time of attack,” he said, adding security has been beefed up at other churches in the province.
A middle-aged woman at the church confirmed to Pakistan TV that security forces had saved them.
“The firing began first and then a blast occurred. We were present at the church and prayers were under way,” she told news channel SAMAA TV.
“We were later rescued by security forces.”
A male survivor said “we were all inside the church when the firing began. Shortly after we heard a huge explosion after which many children were injured. Some died on the spot.”
Civil Hospital spokesman Dr Wasim Baig said 42 injured were taken to his hospital, while dozens of others critically wounded were shifted to the military-run CMH Hospital for treatment.
The assault was caught on surveillance cameras installed inside and outside the church. In the footage, terrorists can be seen forcing their way into the church after shooting the guard.
In a Twitter statement, Baluchistan Home Minister Sarfraz Bugti said “God Forbid, if the terrorists had succeeded in their plans more than 400 precious lives would have been at stake.”
He added that security forces took 16 minutes to complete the operation, while also blaming the bombers as coming from “safe havens of terrorists … in Afghanistan”.
In recent months, Baluchistan, which shares a large border with Afghanistan and Iran, has been raked by a series of violent attacks from both separatist groups and Islamist militants.
On Dec. 1, a 7-year-old Christian boy was killed when terrorists lobbed a hand grenade at the gate of a Christian colony in Chaman.
On Nov. 15, Mohammd Ilyas, a senior police officer, his wife, son and grandson were killed when gunmen attacked their vehicle in Quetta.
A month earlier, five members of minority Shia community were killed in a drive-by shooting.
At least 20 migrant workers who were trying to sneak into Iran on their way to Europe were gunned down by a separatist group in the province last month.