By The New York Times –
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Two suicide bombers attacked a church packed with worshipers on Sunday in southwestern Pakistan, killing at least eight people and injuring at least 30 others, several critically, officials said.
The Islamic State, also known as ISIS, claimed responsibility for the attack in Quetta, the capital of the restive Baluchistan Province, in the country’s southwest. The group’s Amaq News Agency posted a statement online Sunday that said attackers had stormed a church in Quetta, but gave no further details.
The assault raised concerns about the security of religious minorities, especially Christians, in a country with a dismal record when it comes to the treatment and protection of religious minorities, analysts say.
Pakistani officials denied that ISIS had an organized presence in the country, however, even though the terrorist group has claimed responsibility for several other attacks in Baluchistan in recent years.
“Law enforcement agencies have badly failed in protecting common citizens, and minorities in particular,” said Shamaun Alfred Gill, a Christian political and social activist based in Islamabad.
“December is a month of Christian religious rituals,” Mr. Gill said. “We had demanded the government beef up security for churches all over the country. But they have failed to do so.”
Christians make up at least 2 percent of the country’s population of about 198 million. Most of them are marginalized and perform menial jobs.
The attack, a week before the Christmas holiday, unfolded in the early morning hours at Bethel Memorial Methodist Church. About 400 people had gathered for Sunday service when an assailant detonated his explosives-laden vest near the door to the church’s main hall.
Another attacker failed to detonate his suicide jacket and was shot by security forces after an intense firefight, officials said.
Sarfraz Bugti, the provincial home minister, said the death toll could have been higher had the attacker managed to reach the main hall of the church, which is on one of the busiest roads in the city and near several important public buildings.
Local television networks broadcast images of terrified worshipers running out of the church as the attack was underway. Several young girls, wearing white frocks and holding red bags, could be seen fleeing the compound. Witnesses told local news outlets that people, panicked and frightened, had rushed out after hearing a loud explosion, followed by the sound of gunfire outside.
As security forces moved inside the main hall after the attack, they were confronted by a scene of bloody destruction. Several benches and chairs were overturned. Musical instruments were turned upside down.
A Christmas tree with decorative lights stood at one corner, and a pool of blood lay outside the door where the suicide bomber had detonated explosives.
Two women were among the dead, and 10 women and seven children were among the injured, hospital officials said. Most of the injured were taken to the Civil Hospital nearby.
Quetta has been the scene of violent terrorist attacks recently, and a large number of military and paramilitary troops, apart from the police, have been deployed to maintain security.
Officials have repeatedly claimed that they have reduced violence in Baluchistan, a rugged and resource-rich province bordering Afghanistan and Iran. But the ease with which the attackers managed to carry out their assault on Sunday seemed to belie those claims.
“The army repeatedly claims that it has broken the backbone of terrorism in the country,” Mr. Gill said. “But terrorism is still very much present and destroying the lives of common people.”
An insurgency by Baluch separatists has long simmered in the province, and the Taliban and other militants maintain a presence in the region.
Some officials were quick to shift blame toward Afghanistan, pointing to the presence of havens there for militants.
“The terrorists have safe sanctuaries across the border in Afghanistan,” said Anwar-ul Haq Kakar, a spokesman for the Baluchistan government. “They have become a major source of terrorism inside Baluchistan.”
Many minority leaders, however, stressed that there was a bigger need to look inward to ensure security for religious minorities, especially Christians.
“This attack is a serious breach of security,” Mr. Gill said.
Photo: A family fleeing after a suicide bombers attacked Bethel Memorial Methodist Church in Quetta, Pakistan, on Sunday. Credit: Naseer Ahmed/Reuters