At least 9 Christian worshippers were killed and 50 wounded when two suicide bombers attacked a church in the southwestern city of Quetta on Sunday, a local hospital spokesman said. The Islamic State, which has a presence along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, quickly claimed responsibility.
One attacker detonated an explosives-laden vest at an entrance to the church’s main hall. A second attacker’s vest failed to detonate and he was killed by security forces, according to police and government officials. Nearly 400 worshippers were gathered inside Bethel Memorial Methodist Church for early-morning prayers. Photos from the scene showed debris and pools of blood near the pulpit, which was decorated with a Christmas tree.
Moazzam Jah Ansari, a provincial police chief, told reporters that the area around the church had been secured. The Associated Press reported that "a search was underway for two suspected accomplices who escaped," citing Quetta's police chief, Abdur Razzaq Cheema.
Speaking by telephone from Quetta, eyewitness Salim Masih said he was in the church’s main hall when the attack began.
“I was in the middle [of the church] when suddenly we heard shots being fired and people crying outside the hall,” Masih said. “Then everyone was trying to escape. Suddenly, a huge explosion occurred outside the hall that broke windowpanes.
“I didn’t see the attackers because I was trying to save my kids. I kept them in my arms,” he said.
Christians make up about 2 percent of Pakistan’s population. Sunday’s attack raises questions about their safety, and that of other religious minority groups, going into a season of festive gatherings. Over the past several years, there have been several attacks by extremist groups on churches, including a twin suicide bombing in the northwestern city of Peshawar in September 2013 that killed 85.
The Islamic State's regional affiliate, known as Islamic State in Khorasan, has claimed other attacks in Pakistan's Baluchistan province, mostly targeting Shiite Muslims, but this is the first time it has taken responsibility for attackinga church. In August 2016, claimed an attack that killed 60 lawyers in Quetta, devastating the city's legal community.
Pakistani officials have been pointing to success in reducing violence in Baluchistan, a sparsely populated and rugged province bordering Afghanistan and Iran. But Sunday’s bombing was one of a string of brazen attacks in the province’s biggest city.
Baluchistan Interior Minister Sarfaraz Bugti said that quick police action averted a much worse attack on Sunday.
“God forbid, if the terrorists could have succeeded in their plans, more than 400 precious lives would have been at stake,” Bugti said on Twitter.
Bugti was joined by Pakistan’s prime minister, Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, and Army chief Qamar Bajwa in condemning the attack and calling for religious tolerance.
Haq Nawaz Khan in Peshawar, Pakistan, contributed to this report.