Dozens killed in attack on church in Pakistan

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PESHAWAR, Pakistan -- A suicide attack on a historic Christian church in northwestern Pakistan killed at least 78 people Sunday in one of the deadliest attacks on the Christian minority in Pakistan in years.

The attack occurred as worshippers left All Saints Church in the old quarter of the regional capital, Peshawar, after a service Sunday morning. Up to 600 people had attended the service and were leaving to receive free food being distributed on the lawn outside when two explosions ripped through the crowd.

"As soon as the service finished and the food was being distributed, all of a sudden we heard one explosion, followed by another," said Azim Ghori, a witness.

Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, who arrived in Peshawar on Sunday evening, said 78 people had been killed, including 34 women and 7 children. "Such an attack on women and children is against humanity," Mr. Khan said.

The dead included two Muslim police officers who had been posted outside the church.

The attack coincided with a broader wave of attacks on religious minorities, including Shiite Muslims this year.

In March, a Muslim mob swarmed through a Christian neighborhood in the eastern city of Lahore, burning two churches and more than 100 houses. Christians also frequently find themselves accused of blasphemy under Pakistan's strict blasphemy laws.

The attacks are mostly orchestrated by Sunni extremist militant groups, although some have also been claimed by the Pakistani Taliban.

All Saints Church is one of the oldest in Peshawar and was built during the British colonial era. It is at Kohati Gate in the city's old quarter, where numerous militant attacks have occurred in recent years, mostly targeting Muslims.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has been trying to initiate peace talks with the Pakistani Taliban, aimed at ending a decade of violence. An all-parties political conference held this month gave the government approval to start negotiations with the insurgents.

But that offer was publicly rejected by the Taliban, which later claimed responsibility for the killing of a senior army general in Upper Dir, near the Afghan border, last week.

Immediately after Sunday's bombing, questions were again raised about the government's plans to hold peace talks.

Hundreds of Christians and activists from various civil society groups protested in the eastern city of Lahore in the hours after the attack. They blocked roads as they strongly condemned the violence.

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