The blast occurred outside Peshawar’s All Saints Church, which dates to 1883 and is one of the oldest Christian places of worship in northwest Pakistan.
According to security officials, the bombers blew themselves up near the gate of the church as more than 600 worshipers were leaving, sending body parts and debris flying. Many of the dead were women and children, and officials said at least 120 people were injured.
A splinter group affiliated with the Pakistani Taliban asserted responsibility for the attack, saying it was in protest of U.S. drone strikes on Pakistani soil, the latest of which may have occurred Sunday.
Pakistan’s Christian community says it is facing growing intimidation, as well as threats of kidnapping and death, from Islamist extremists and even some groups often seen as more mainstream.
“Every Christian is feeling under siege in Pakistan,” said Tahir Naveed Chaudhry, a Christian lawyer and chairman of the Pakistan Minorities Alliance.
Last year, Chaudhry successfully defended a young Christian girl from charges of blasphemy after a Muslim cleric accused her of burning the Koran. The girl fled to Canada with her parents in March. That same month, hundreds of Christians were forced to flee their neighborhood in the eastern city of Lahore after a mob set fire to dozens of houses while accusing a man of blasphemy.
But the scale of the latest bombing stunned much of Pakistan, reigniting memories of an attack in 2001 in which gunmen stormed a Roman Catholic church in Punjab province and killed 15 worshipers.
“I rushed to the site and saw dead bodies and wounded people, mostly women and children screaming,” Saeed Ullah, 24, said after Sunday’s blast.
As gruesome images from the attack flashed across television screens, several major Pakistani political parties called for three days of mourning.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif issued a statement in which he pledged “solidarity” with Pakistan’s Christian community. “Terrorists have no religion, and targeting innocent people is against the teachings of Islam and all religions,” he said.
Outside All Saints Church, relatives of the dead and injured set tires ablaze and shouted complaints against the police and the attackers. The crowd said security forces had not done enough to protect the church.
“It was a security collapse,” said Asif Bhatti, a former local lawmaker from the Peshawar area who attended All Saints Church.
Protests erupted in several cities, including in Karachi, about 800 miles from the scene of the bombing. Residents of Christian neighborhoods in that sprawling seaport blocked traffic and threw stones at passing vehicles, according to local media.
Michael Javed, a Christian leader in Karachi who runs several schools, said the attack left many Christians in the country feeling powerless and unprotected. Christians make up about 1 to 2 percent of Pakistan’s population. About 97 percent of residents in the country identify as Muslim.
Just 12 days ago, Javed said, he got a call from a man who threatened to “drown my school” and kill his family if he did not pay a ransom or leave the area.
He and other Christian leaders said their safety has deteriorated since the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan, as Islamist militants began targeting people they suspected of holding Western beliefs.
The Taliban-linked Jundallah group that took credit for Sunday’s attack has been tied to past attempts to fuel sectarian and religious discord in Pakistan.
Ahmad Marwat, commander of the group, vowed that the attacks would continue until U.S. drone strikes are halted.
According to security officials, a suspected U.S. drone fired four missiles Sunday into a house near the border of North and South Waziristan, a tribal area known as a haven for militants and foreign fighters who often cross the border into Afghanistan.
Six militants were killed in the strike, including some foreigners, according to a Pakistani intelligence official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.
Pakistan’s government condemned the action, saying in a statement that such strikes “set dangerous precedents in inter-state relations.”
Khan reported from Peshawar.