PESHAWAR, Pakistan – A pair of suicide bombers blew themselves up amid hundreds of worshippers at a historic church in northwestern Pakistan on Sunday, killing 81 people in the deadliest-ever attack against the country’s Christian minority.
A wing of the Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility for the bombing, raising new questions about the government’s push to strike a peace deal with the militants to end a decadelong insurgency that has killed thousands of people.
The Jundullah arm of the Taliban said they would continue to target non-Muslims until the United States stopped drone attacks in Pakistan’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.
The attack on the All Saints Church, which wounded 138 people, occurred as worshippers were leaving 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 in the city’s Kohati Gate district along 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 one another 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 contained in the bombs to cause maximum damage. Blood stained the floor and the walls. Plates filled with rice were scattered on the ground.
The attack was carried out by two suicide bombers who detonated their explosives almost simultaneously, police officer Shafqat Malik said.
At least 34 women and seven children were killed, Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan said.
The number of casualties from the blasts was so high that the hospital ran short 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.
Pope Francis led several thousand people in a prayer for the victims while on a visit to Sardinia. Those who carried out the attack, he said, “took the wrong choice, one of hatred and war.”
One of the wounded, John Tariq, who lost his father in the attack, demanded of those behind the bombing: “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,” Marwat told the Associated Press by telephone from an undisclosed location.
Jundullah has previously claimed responsibility for attacks on minority Shiite Muslims in 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 and blamed the government and security agencies for failing to protect the country’s Christians.
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 the Pakistani Taliban is the best way to tamp down violence in the country.
The U.S. has repeatedly demanded that Pakistan take stronger action against Islamic militants, especially members of the Afghan Taliban who use the country as a base for 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 strike on Sunday took place in the Shawal area of North Waziristan, the main sanctuary for militants in the country, said Pakistani intelligence officials, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Pakistani officials regularly decry 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.
The Pakistani and Afghan Taliban are allies but have focused their fight on opposite sides of the border.