By Riaz Khan
PESHAWAR, Pakistan — A pair of suicide bombers detonated their explosives outside a historic church in northwestern Pakistan on Sunday, killing 75 people in the deadliest-ever attack on the country’s Christian minority, officials said.
A wing of the Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility for the bombing in the city of Peshawar, saying it would continue to target non-Muslims until the United States stopped drone attacks in the country’s remote tribal region.
The latest drone strike came Sunday, when missiles hit a pair of compounds in the North Waziristan tribal area, killing six suspected militants, Pakistani intelligence officials said.
The attack on the All Saints Church, which also wounded 110 people, underlines the threat posed by the Pakistani Taliban at a time when the government is seeking a peace deal with the militants. It will likely intensify criticism from those who believe that negotiating peace with the Taliban is a mistake.
The attack occurred as hundreds of worshippers were coming out of the church in the city’s Kohati Gate district after services to get a free meal of rice offered on the front lawn, said a top government administrator, Sahibzada Anees.
“There were blasts and there was hell for all of us,” said Nazir John, who was at the church with at least 400 other worshippers. “When I got my senses back, I found nothing but smoke, dust, blood and screaming people. I saw severed body parts and blood all around.”
Survivors wailed and hugged each other in the wake of the blasts. The white walls of the church, which first opened in the late 1800s, were pockmarked with holes caused by ball bearings or other metal objects contained in the bombs to cause maximum damage. Blood stained the floor and was splashed on the walls. Plates filled with rice were scattered across the ground.
The attack was carried out by a pair of suicide bombers who detonated their explosives almost simultaneously, said police officer Shafqat Malik. Authorities found their body parts and were trying to determine their age, he said.
The blasts killed 75 people and wounded another 110, said Jamil Shah, a spokesman at the hospital in Peshawar where the victims were being treated. The dead included women and children, said Sher Ali Khan, another doctor at the hospital.
The number of casualties from the blasts was so high that the hospital was running out of caskets for the dead and beds for the wounded, said Mian Iftikhar Hussain, a former information minister of surrounding Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province who was on the scene.
“This is the deadliest attack against Christians in our country,” said Irfan Jamil, the bishop of the eastern city of Lahore.
One of the wounded, John Tariq, who lost his father in the attack, asked of the attackers, “What have we done wrong to these people? Why are we being killed?”
Ahmad Marwat, who identified himself as the spokesman for the Jundullah wing of the Pakistani Taliban, claimed responsibility for the attack.
“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,” Marwart told The Associated Press by telephone from an undisclosed location.
Jundullah has previously claimed responsibility for attacks on minority Shiite Muslims in the southwestern Baluchistan province. Hard-line Sunni extremists like the Taliban consider Shiites to be heretics.
The bishop in Peshawar, Sarfarz Hemphray, announced a three-day mourning period in response to the church attack and blamed the government and security agencies for failing to protect the country’s Christians.
“If the government shows will, it can control this terrorism,” said Hemphray. “We have been asking authorities to enhance security, but they haven’t paid any heed.”
Hundreds of Christians burned tires in the street in the southern city of Karachi to protest the bombing.
“Although the government claims they are with minorities, we are being victimized,” said one of the protesters, Tariq Masih. “We need justice.”
Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif condemned the attack in a statement sent to reporters, saying, “The terrorists have no religion and targeting innocent people is against the teachings of Islam and all religions.”
“Such cruel acts of terrorism reflect the brutality and inhumane mindset of the terrorists,” he said.
Islamic militants have carried out dozens of attacks across the country since Sharif took office in June, even though he has made clear that he believes a peace deal with one of the largest groups, the Pakistani Taliban, is the best way to tamp down violence in the country.
Pakistan’s major political parties endorsed Sharif’s call for negotiations earlier this month. But the Taliban have said the government must release militant prisoners and begin pulling troops out of the northwest tribal region that serves as their sanctuary before they will begin talks.
There are many critics of peace talks, who point out that past deals with the Taliban have fallen apart and simply given the militants time to regroup. Supporters say negotiations are the only way forward since military operations against the Taliban in the tribal region have failed to subdue them.
The U.S. has repeatedly demanded that Pakistan take stronger action against Islamic militants in the country, especially members of the Afghan Taliban who use the nation as a base to carry out cross-border attacks on American troops in Afghanistan.
The U.S. has carried out several hundred drone attacks against Taliban militants and their allies in Pakistan’s tribal region. The attack on Sunday took place in the North Waziristan tribal area, the main sanctuary for militants in the country, said Pakistani intelligence officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.
Pakistani officials regularly decry the drone attacks as a violation of the country’s sovereignty, but the government is known to have secretly supported some of the strikes in the past, especially ones that have targeted Pakistani Taliban militants at war with the state.
The Pakistani and Afghan Taliban are allies but have focused their fight on opposite sides of the border.
Associated Press writers Zarar Khan and Asif Shahzad in Islamabad, Rasool Dawar in Peshawar and Ishtiaq Mahsud in Dera Ismail Khan contributed to this report.