Pakistan's religious minorities were reeling yesterday after gunmen attacked a Christian church in rural Punjab province, killing at least 16 people, including a Muslim police guard.
It was one of the largest anti-Christian attacks in recent memory here, and the first major assault on a religious minority group since the Sept. 11 attacks.
While no group immediately claimed responsibility, officials say they suspect the attack is a response by sectarian Muslim groups to the US military campaign in neighboring Afghanistan.
The assault came toward the end of a Protestant church service, which was being held at the Roman Catholic St. Dominic's Church in the southern Pakistani town of Behawalpur, some 200 miles southwest of Lahore.
Witnesses say more than 100 parishioners were worshipping when six gunmen drove up on three motorcycles, entered the church, and sprayed it with gunfire from Kalashnikov rifles for five minutes.
Shamoon Masih, who was shot in the leg and the arm, said most of those who died belonged to two families.
Rev. Roccus Patras, the parish priest, was in a back room preparing for his own service, when the attack occured.
"I took these children, these little children, and ran. We jumped over the wall," and he later returned to the church, he said. "It was like bombs were going off.
"They had whole bags of weapons and bullets," he added.
While no arrests have been made, Pakistani intelligence agencies say they are investigating a banned Muslim group that has launched sectarian attacks in the past.
"The method used and the inhuman tactics employed clearly indicates involvement of trained terrorists of organizations bent upon creating discord and disharmony in Pakistan, where Christians and Muslims have always lived in peace with mutual respect for each other," said President Pervez Musharraf in a statement.
Meanwhile, authorities in Pakistan's four provinces ordered increased security at Christian churches. In Islamabad, police commandos with automatic weapons were guarding church gates yesterday.
"This was terrorism pure and simple," says Afrasiab Khattak, chairman of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, based in Peshawar. "It shows that the madness of terrorism is still dangerously strong in Pakistan. If we are part of a coalition against terrorism, then terrorism has to be fought against and rooted out from our own society," he adds. "Unfortunately, the government of Pakistan has not done enough."
The attacks come just three weeks after the US launched its military campaign in Afghanistan, which many Pakistani Muslims decry as taking a heavy toll on Afghan civilians.
"Whenever something happens with America, they attack Christian churches," said Mr. Patras, sighing. Christians make up less than 3 percent of Pakistan's 141 million people.
In past US military actions - including the Gulf War, and later during US missile strikes on Osama bin Laden's suspected terrorist training camps in Khost, Afghanistan - Pakistani Christians were subjected to harassment, and occasionally brutal attacks or murder.
As Christians, they were seen to be products of the same Western culture that launched those attacks on Muslim nations.
Local residents and some Christian leaders say there was no warning of an attack, although Christian Liberation Front of Pakistan spokesman Shahbaz Bhatti said Islamic extremists had been calling for jihad (holy war) in the town since the US-led airstrikes began against the Taliban in Afghanistan on Oct 7.
"A few days before this incident an application was made to the police in Bahawalpur for more security at this church." he said.
Even so, the region of southern Pakistan has been the scene of much sectarian violence, mostly between radical members of Pakistan's two main branches of Islam, the majority Sunni and the minority Shiites.
Christian leaders across Pakistan expressed shock at the attacks and appealed for greater government protection - and for national unity.
"We don't need any issues like this to divide our country. This country already has enough divisions," says Shamhad Sanaullah, chairman of the Pakistan United Christian Front in Rawalpindi.
Material from the wire services was used for this report.