LAHORE, Pakistan: Fourteen people were killed and more than 70 injured when two Taliban suicide bombers attacked churches in Pakistan’s Lahore on Sunday, sparking mob violence in which two other suspected militants died.
The bombings occurred during prayers at two churches located around half a kilometer apart in the city’s Youhanabad neighborhood, which is home to more than 100,000 Christians, officials said.
Up to 4,000 then took to the streets of the eastern city, many armed with clubs, smashing vehicles and attacking a city bus station in a rare show of anger by the beleaguered minority.
Doctor Mohammad Saeed Sohbin, medical superintendent of the General Hospital, told AFP: “We have received 14 dead bodies and 70 injured,” adding that the figure did not include the suspected militants who were lynched or the bombers.
Zahid Pervez, the top health official in Lahore, confirmed the death toll and told reporters that 78 people were wounded in both attacks, which left blood and shoes scattered across the blast sites.
Sunday’s attack is the worst in over a year against Pakistan’s Christians, who make up a tiny proportion of the mainly Muslim country.
Eyewitness Jacob David said people jumped out of the church window to save their lives.
“These were huge blasts, one after another. Everyone started running here and there, some people jumped outside after breaking the window,” the 55-year-old told AFP.
Police spokeswoman Nabila Ghazanfar said two policemen guarding the churches were among those killed in the attacks, while two people were beaten to death by protesters who took to the streets after the blasts.
“Policemen on duty at both the entrances tried to stop them but the bombers blew themselves up,” she told AFP.
“The angry mob protesting after the blast beat to death two people whom they suspected of being associates of the attackers.”
An AFP photographer saw the bodies of the two suspected militants on fire after the beatings. It was not clear whether they were still alive at the time.
The Pakistani Taliban’s Jamaat-ul-Ahrar faction described the blasts as suicide attacks and vowed to continue their campaign for the enforcement of Sharia Islamic law, in a statement e-mailed to the media.
Christians, who make up around two percent of Pakistan’s population of 180 million, have been targeted by attacks and riots in recent years, often over allegations of profanity regarding the Koran or the Prophet Mohammed.
Sunday’s attacks were the worst on the community since a devastating double suicide-bombing in the northwestern city of Peshawar in September 2013 killed 82 people.
That came months after more than 3,000 Muslim protesters torched some 100 houses as they rampaged through Joseph Colony, another Christian neighbourhood of Lahore, following blasphemy allegations against a Christian man.
Pope Francis on Sunday condemned the attacks and accused the world of “seeking to hide” the persecution of Christians.
“It’s with pain, much pain, that I was told of the terrorist attacks against two Christian churches in Lahore in Pakistan, which have caused numerous deaths and injuries,” the pope said after his weekly Angelus prayer in Rome.
The thousands of Christian protesters who clashed with police on Sunday attacked their cars with stones and sticks, as women wept and beat their heads and chests.
The protesters, some wearing crosses round their necks, later turned on the city’s bus rapid transit system—a signature project of the ruling PML-N party of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
Sharif in a statement condemned the church bombings and “directed provincial governments to ensure the security of (the) public and their properties.”
Zaeem Qadri, a spokesman for the provincial government, said efforts were being made to stop the rioting but “emotions are very high because their churches have been attacked.”
Christians also took to the streets in other cities, including Pakistan’s largest city Karachi, where around 200 protesters blocked a main road and burned tires. There were also demonstrations in Peshawar in the northwest, in the central city of Multan and in Quetta in the southwest.