PESHAWAR: It was a peaceful Sunday Mass at All Saints’ Church in the old city quarters. Over 400 parishioners – among them many women and children – had just outstretched their hands to each other as part of the ‘sign of peace’.
Some minutes later, when most of them had filed out of the church
two blasts struck down nearly a quarter of them.
Within minutes blood and gore swept the historic white-stone church which was built to resemble a mosque as a gesture of interfaith harmony. Inside, pages of the Bible lay scattered near the altar and rice meals mingled with dust in the aisles amid mangled benches. Walls were pock-marked with ball bearings used in the suicide vests.
It was the single biggest attack on the largely impoverished Christian minority. Though Christians have endured mob rampages on their places of worship and arson attacks on their settlements in recent years, they have been largely spared the ravages of suicide bombings for a little more than a decade now. The last wave of blasts in churches and Christian institutions came in 2002, in the months following the US invasion of Afghanistan.
Eyewitnesses said the bombers struck soon after the service ended at the 129-year-old Anglican church located in the Kohati Gate area inside the Walled City.
“We came out of the building chatting with each other when a loud blast occurred near where children and women were standing,” a church administrator, Daniel told The Express Tribune. “Only seconds after another explosion rocked the building.”
Medics and government officials said that 78 parishioners, among them 34 women and seven children, were killed and 146 injured in the attack.
According to Additional AIG (Special Branch) and head of the Bomb Disposal Squad Shafqat Malik, each of the bombers carried at least six kilogrammes of high explosives in his suicide vest. “Ball bearings were also used in the devices to maximise casualties,” he told The Express Tribune.
“We found the skull of one bomber soon after the explosions, while the second head was found on the rooftop of the church,” he added.
The bombers entered the church through the main gate which was reopened for the Sunday Mass after almost three years of closure. Police also found a 9mm pistol at the site which substantiated some witnesses’ account that the attackers fired gunshots and lobbed a hand grenade to engage the police guards at the church.
One of the guards – identified as Zahid – was killed while the other, Tawas Khan, sustained critical wounds.
Survivors recalled the grisly scenes at the site. “I heard two explosions. People started to run. Human remains were strewn all over the church,” said parishioner Margaret. Her voice breaking with emotion, she said she had not seen her sister since the explosions ripped through the church.
Salma Bhatti and her family were lucky enough to survive the blasts. “I escaped with a few bruises on my face but our relatives and friends were not that lucky. They are all dead or seriously injured,” she told The Express Tribune.
Most of the casualties were shifted to the Lady Reading Hospital, while some of them were also shifted to the Khyber Teaching Hospital and Combined Military Hospital. Medics at these facilities confirmed 78 deaths and 146 injured people.
The deadly attacks sparked protest in different neighbourhoods of the city. Incensed by the senseless violence, Christian protesters blocked Church Road and set the belongings of the policemen guarding the building on fire. They chanted slogans against the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf government in the province and against the party chief, Imran Khan.
Relatives of the victims also protested in the LRH and smashed the windowpanes of the administrative offices.
Interior Minister Chaudry Nisar Ali Khan travelled to Peshawar on the prime minister’s instructions to sympathise with the community and console with injured victims at the LRH.
“No religion condones attacks against women and children and innocent civilians. The enemies of Pakistan and Islam are behind today’s attack,” he told the media at the hospital. “I’m here to express solidarity with the Christian community. The government has announced three-day mourning across the country,” he added.
The interior minister held out an assurance that the government would do everything it could to protect the religious minorities of Pakistan. “The government is ready to reconstruct the church building.”
Pakistan Catholic Bishops’ Conference (PCBC) strongly condemned the suicide attack on All Saints Church, Peshawar.
Archbishop Joseph Coutts, the president of PCBC, expressed shock and sorrow over the brutal attack. “Attacking innocent men, women and children while praying in the church is a shameful act of cowardice,” he said in a statement.
He announced that all the Christian educational institutions in the country will remain closed for three days (Sept 23, 24 and 25) as a sign of mourning and protest.
He demanded that the government take immediate steps to apprehend the culprits and take measures to protect the worship places of all religious minorities. He added that the government should seriously tackle the increasing religious and sectarian intolerance that has reached alarming proportions.
The All Pakistan Hindu Rights Movement also denounced the attack and called it a ‘security failure’. The movement’s chairman, Haroon Sarbdyal, said in a statement that many innocent lives were lost due to inadequate security.
It was the second deadliest attack in the history of Peshawar after the 2009 Peepal Mandi when nearly 100 lives were snuffed out by a suicide car bomber. No group immediately claimed responsibility for Sunday’s bombing.
Security analysts say such attacks could complicate efforts by the Nawaz Sharif to engage homegrown militants in meaningful peace negotiations at a time when roadside bombs, targeted killings and suicide attacks continue unabated.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 23rd, 2013.