Suicide bombers kill at least 53 at Pakistan church

Suicide bombers kill at least 53 at Pakistan church
A man cries at the death of his brother at the site of a suicide blast at a church in Peshawar, September 22, 2013.

PESHAWAR, Pakistan - Two suicide bombers Sunday killed at least 53 people and wounded more than 100 in an attack on a church service in the restive northwestern Pakistani city of Peshawar, officials said.

It was one of the deadliest attacks for years on Christians in overwhelmingly Muslim Pakistan.

The death toll was given by Doctor Sher Ali, deputy medical superintendent of Peshawar's main Lady Reading Hospital.

Peshawar's commissioner Sahibzada Anees told reporters the bombers struck when the service had just ended.

"Most of the wounded are in critical condition," Anees said, adding special security had been in force to protect the church.

"We are in an area which is a target of terrorism and within that area there was a special security arrangement for the church. We are in a rescue phase and once it is over we will investigate what went wrong," he added.

Schoolteacher Nazir Khan, 50, said the service had just ended and at least 400 worshippers were greeting each other when there was a huge explosion. "A huge blast threw me on the floor and as soon as I regained my senses, a second blast took place and I saw wounded people everywhere," Khan told AFP.

Television footage showed ambulances rushing the wounded to hospital. Grieved relatives gathered outside the church and shouted slogans against police over the security lapse.

Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif strongly condemned the bombings. "Terrorists have no religion and targeting innocent people is against the teachings of Islam and all religions," he said in a statement.

Sharif said such "cruel acts of terrorism reflect the brutality and inhumane mindset of the terrorists". He expressed his solidarity with the Christian community and deep sympathies with bereaved family members.

Only two per cent of Pakistan's population of 180 million are Christian. The community is largely poor and complains of increasing discrimination. The US Commission on International Religious Freedom has warned that the risk to Pakistan's minorities has reached crisis level.

A Christian mother was sentenced to death for blasphemy in 2010. In the town of Gojra in 2009, a mob burned 77 houses and killed seven people after rumours that a copy of the Islamic holy book the Quran had been desecrated. Last year a young Christian girl spent three weeks in jail after being accused of blasphemy. The case was thrown out but she and her family have been in hiding ever since, fearing for their lives.

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