PESHAWAR, Pakistan — A suicide bomb attack on a historic church in northwestern Pakistan killed at least 56 people today, officials said, the deadliest-ever assault on the country’s Christian minority.
The bombing in Peshawar, which wounded another 120 people, underlines the threat posed by Islamic extremists as the government seeks a peace deal with domestic Taliban militants. It will likely intensify criticism from those who believe that negotiating peace with militants is a mistake.
It 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.
It was not immediately clear whether one or two suicide bombers carried out the attack.
Witnesses said they heard two blasts, the second more powerful than the first. One police officer, Zahir Shah, said he believed both blasts were caused by suicide bombers.
“There were blasts and there was hell for all of us,” said Nazir John, who was at the church. “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.”
There were at least 400 worshippers at the church when the attack occurred, said John.
Survivors wailed and hugged each other in the wake of the blasts. The white walls of the All Saints Church were pockmarked with holes likely 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 blasts killed at least 56 people and wounded another 120, said Arshad Javed, the top health official at the hospital in Peshawar where the victims were being treated. The dead included several 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.
“What have we done wrong to these people?” asked one of the wounded, John Tariq, referring to the attackers. “Why are we being killed?”
Tariq’s father was killed by the blasts, he said.
No one has claimed responsibility for the attack, but suspicion will likely fall on one of the country’s many Islamic militant groups. Islamic militants have been blamed for previous attacks on the Muslim country’s Christian minority, as well as Muslim groups they consider heretics.
“This is the deadliest attack against Christians in our country,” said Irfan Jamil, the bishop of the eastern city of Lahore.
The bishop in Peshawar, Sarfarz Hemphray, announced a three-day mourning period 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.”
Islamic militants have carried out dozens of attacks across the country since Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif took office in June, even though he has made clear that he believes a peace deal with the largest group, the 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.
Sharif condemned the church 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.