Suicide bombers killed at least eleven Christians and wounded more than fifty at a Quetta church on Sunday 17 December.
Four suicide bombers attacked Bethel Memorial Methodist Church in Quetta, capital of Balochistan Province in southwest Pakistan, while the church was holding a Sunday School Christmas programme. Worshippers were lining up to take communion at the time of the attack, for which Islamic State claimed responsibility. Several children died, as well as adults.
“There were around four hundred worshippers inside the church when the attack began,” Pastor Saimon Bashir Masih told Morning Star News. The first thing they heard was gunfire outside, as the attackers shot the church gatekeeper dead. Security guards stationed around the perimeter and on the roof shot dead one of the bombers, then shot and wounded the second bomber. Unable to get into the church building, he detonated his explosive vest at the door, and died. Two accomplices fled.
Pastor Saimon said that police assigned to security duty at the church reacted quickly, preventing an even worse tragedy. “The loss of lives would have been colossal had either of the two suicide bombers detonated inside the church hall,” he said. “Zarghoon Road is a very sensitive area, and the church is already listed in the A+ category of high threat places.”
The pastor described what happened: “Our church gatekeeper, George Masih (pictured, with his daughter and two grand-daughters), was the first person who fell to the terrorists’ bullets. We immediately asked the people to take shelter beneath the benches, as we were not sure about the attackers’ location. Many panic-stricken people rushed towards the main door and that’s when the second bomber exploded his jacket in the compound, resulting in the casualties.”
Sunil Pervaiz, who was in church with his sister during the attack, told Morning Star News: “We hid the women and children under the benches. But just then a deafening explosion occurred, breaking the wooden door and the glass windows. I saw several people covered in blood… some were lying on the floor, some limping away to safety. It was sheer chaos.”
Balochistan Police Chief Moazzam Ansari praised the police guards’ quick response and said the injuries resulted mainly from wooden splinters from the door and from glass blown out of the church windows. He said that the attackers, aged between 16 and 20, had 15 kilograms of explosives strapped to their bodies, and that the authorities are searching for the two who fled.
Bethel Memorial Methodist Church is located in Quetta’s high-security zone, and was the target of a previous terrorist attack several years ago, after which security was increased. The city is only 65 km from the Afghan border.
Elsewhere in Balochistan, earlier this month three people were killed in a Christian colony in Chaman, during a hand grenade attack on the gates of the colony. The dead included a seven-year-old boy, Lucky Saleem. No group has claimed responsibility for the attack.
Pakistan’s Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi and Chief of Army Staff General Qamar Javed Bajwa condemned the Quetta attack, calling it an attempt to cloud Christmas celebrations.
Christian political and religious leaders also condemned the attack and urged the government to provide maximum security to churches across the country for Christmas services.
Wilson Chowdhry, chairman of the British Pakistani Christian Association (BPCA), commented: “The Government of Pakistan has now promised better protection for Christian establishments and communities over the Christmas period. Yet any palpable response is yet to manifest. Nothing short of military personnel deployed at the entrances to these locations, armed with loaded semi-automatic weapons will suffice.”
He described Christians as “targets for extremist violence during the Christmas period in Pakistan” and added, “Their very presence in the nation of Pakistan is regarded as a contamination of the nation’s purity. When Pak-Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus they are viewed as demons. I fear for them, I pray for them, I will no doubt weep some more for them.”
The lead BPCA officer in Quetta, Pastor Adil, has been meeting survivors and the families of those killed and injured to offer prayers and Bible-based trauma counselling, and to assess needs for an aid programme, one of several being run by various organisations. BPCA will provide grants for medical assistance and will reimburse families for funeral costs and support those who cannot work.
The BPCA says it had warned the Pakistani government about the rise of Islamic State in Pakistan, but that, “Our persistent calls for better protection of churches fell on deaf ears.” It stated, “We had been receiving information from churches reporting groups who had sent threatening letters calling for Christians to convert or face Iraq and Syria-like beheadings back in March 2015. We instructed them to contact their local army officials to see if any help would be forthcoming. Sadly, the response form the army was pathetic… The community silence allowed IS to build a network in Pakistan that now probably exceeds the Taliban in size and influence.”
The Regional Coordinator of Barnabas Fund, Wilson Saraj, phoned Pastor Saimon soon after the attack, but the pastor was in tears and unable to speak. Barnabas Fund has been providing monthly food parcels for poor families in the congregation, and Wilson visited the church on 8 October. The organisation is now providing emergency funds for burial, medical and other costs.
(Barnabas Fund, British Pakistani Christian Association/Morning Star News/World Watch Monitor)