Church bombing threatens Pakistan's push for Taliban talks

The bombing is the largest attack against the Christian minority in Pakistan ever and raises concerns about the new prime minister's plan to talk to militants. 

Muhammed Muheisen/AP
Pakistani Rukhsana Saleem, who survived Sunday's suicide bombing and slightly injured, prays at the church where the attack took place, in Peshawar, Pakistan, Monday, Sept. 23, 2013.

A pair of suicide bombers killed at least 80 and wounded some 120 at a Christian church in the northern city of Peshawar, Pakistan on Sunday. It's being called the largest attack of its kind against Christians in Pakistan.

This is the latest in a series of bombings and assassinations emerging from (and feeding) the political and sectarian discord in this volatile nation situated between Afghanistan, Iran, and India.

Bloomberg notes that an attack of this size is only a portion of the terrorism toll overall in Pakistan:

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.

As the BBC reports, it is unclear who was behind the attack, but two militant groups linked to the Pakistani Taliban have claimed credit.

Jandullah and the Junood ul-Hifsa - both with past links to the Pakistani Taliban - said they ordered the double bombing in retaliation for US drone strikes in Pakistan's tribal north-west. The Pakistani Taliban, however, condemned the attack. Correspondents say the group frequently denies responsibility for attacks which take a heavy civilian toll.

The attack resonated worldwide. The News of Pakistan reports that United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon condemned the attack in a statement that also reiterated the UN's solidarity with the Pakistani government's struggle against terrorism and extremism.

The bombing has cast a shadow across recent government attempts to start a peace process with the Pakistani Taliban. The three-month-old government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif made peace with the Taliban a priority earlier this month, but the bombing makes talk of a dialogue with militants difficult for the Pakistani public to support. From an Associated Press account of the bombing's aftermath:

"What dialogue are we talking about? Peace with those who are killing innocent people," asked the head of the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance, Paul Bhatti, whose brother, a federal minister, was gunned down by an Islamic extremist in 2011. "They don't want dialogue," said Bhatti. "They don't want peace."

Politician and former cricket star Imran Khan was on the scene in Peshawar, and despite the bloodshed he said he was still hopeful that some sort of long-term solution could be found.

“Those who did this were not humans,” Imran Khan, whose party runs Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, told reporters outside the hospital in Peshawar. “I don’t think we should give up efforts to find those groups who want to talk. We need to know who wants to talk.”

In the wake of the attack, the government has decreed a three-day period of national mourning, reports The Express Tribune. While announcing the mourning period, Pakistan's federal minister of interior suggested that the government would go to greater lengths to protect Christians from future attacks.

“On a federal level, we have decided to review the protection of the Christian community in the country, who are perhaps considered by the terrorists as soft targets. We have decided to chalk out a bigger plan to brush up security preparations for their houses, community areas and churches.”

The mourning period comes amid widespread protests against the attack and the Pakistani government by members of the country's Christians, who make up less than 2 percent of the country's population. In Peshawar, Bloomberg reports, protesters blocked roads using coffins containing the bodies of those who lost their lives in the attack.

The troubles of Pakistan's Christians in this instance echo but do not precisely parallel the violence waged by Islamists against Coptic Christians in Egypt. In Egypt, the Monitor reported, Christians were blamed for protests that led to the ouster of former President Mohamed Morsi; in Pakistan, they have been nominally blamed for the ongoing US drone campaign in the country's tribal areas.

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