The attackers detonated explosives inside the church while as many as 600 people listened to a sermon, Zaheer ul Islam, Peshawar’s deputy commissioner, told state-run Pakistan TV. Doctors at Lady Reading Hospital were treating 110 injured churchgoers, Shiraz Afridi, director of emergency services, said by phone from Peshawar, located near the Afghanistan border.
The blasts, among the deadliest of roughly 85 bomb and suicide attacks in Pakistan this year, come two weeks after political leaders agreed to initiate dialogue with militants in the region, including the Taliban. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s three-month-old government has advocated talks with the groups to stem the violence and revive the country’s economy.
“Terrorists have no religion and targeting innocent people is against the teachings of Islam and all religions,” Sharif said in a statement. “Such cruel acts of terrorism reflect the brutality and inhumane mind set of the terrorists.”
Sharif also expressed solidarity with the Christian community, according to the statement. Muslims account for more than 96 percent of the country’s 193 million people, according to the CIA World Factbook.
Feroz Shah, a spokesman for Zaheer’s office, confirmed that two bombers attacked the church. Sahibzada Anees, Peshawar’s police commissioner, told Pakistan TV that one of the bombers was dressed in a police uniform.
“Dialogue with militants cannot take place in such a situation,” Hasan Askari Rizvi, a Lahore-based independent security analyst who formerly taught at Columbia University in New York, said by phone. “They are responding to the government’s offer of dialogue with the bullet. They are viewing the offer as a sign of the government’s weakness.”
The bombing is the second major attack since Sharif’s government decided to initiate talks with militants on Sept. 9. Two Pakistan army officers, including a major-general, were killed last week in a roadside blast in northwestern Pakistan.
While no one has yet claimed the responsibility, pro-Taliban Pakistani militants have been blamed for a campaign of suicide bombings. Pakistan’s Taliban is a loose group of militant and sectarian organizations that oppose the country’s security ties with the U.S. and want to impose their own interpretation of Islamic law.
As many 1,222 people, including 425 police and security officials and 797 civilians, have been killed in 858 terrorist attacks across Pakistan from Jan. 1 to Aug. 31, according to statistics presented to parliament by the Interior Ministry this month. That included 25 suicide attacks and 60 bomb blasts.