Authorities in Pakistan said two suicide bombings outside Christian churches in the eastern city of Lahore have killed at least 15 people and wounded more than 70 others, and a militant gang allied to the outlawed Pakistani Taliban has claimed responsibility.
The bombings minutes apart targeted a Catholic and a Protestant church in a majority Christian suburb, Youhanabad, where thousands of people had gathered for Sunday services.
Hospital officials said about 30 of those wounded in the attack are in critical condition. A senior Lahore police officer, Haider Ashraf, said two gunmen wearing suicide vests tried to shoot their way into the churches.
“The suicide bombers tried to enter inside the buildings, but blew themselves up outside the churches because they were stopped by the concerned police people," Ashraf said.
He added that one police officer was killed and several others sustained injuries while successfully preventing the bombers from entering the prayer halls, thereby limiting the damage.
An eyewitness spoke to reporters shortly after the attack, saying she was buying things for her two sons who were inside the church when the attack occurred.
She said there were gunshots first, and then there was an explosion in front of the church gate. She said she found one of her sons, but her other child is still missing.
With nearly 1 million people, the Yuhanabad area has one of Pakistan's largest Christian communities.
Outraged by the attacks, many Christians, who make up less than 2 percent of Pakistan's population of more than 180 million, accuse the government of doing little to protect them, took to the streets in Lahore and other Pakistani cities to protest.
Witnesses said residents of Youhanabad lynched two men they suspected of involvement in the Sunday morning attacks.
Television footage showed protesters ransacking government property and torching vehicles, forcing riot police to shoot into the air to disperse the crowds.
During Sunday Mass in Italy, Pope Francis offered condolences to the dead and injured.
"These are Christian churches. Christians are persecuted, our brothers spill their blood simply because they are Christians," the pontiff said.
Pakistani Taliban-allied group
A militant group allied to the Islamist Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack. It vowed to continue attacks “until an Islamic system” is established in the country.
The Pakistani Taliban has been waging an insurgency against the state and has targeted mosques, churches and other places of worship.
The violence has claimed tens of thousands of lives during the past decade. But attacks have declined in recent months following stepped up counterinsurgency operations by Pakistani security forces against militant strongholds, particularly in northwestern parts of the country.
Also Sunday, officials in northwestern Pakistan said shepherds had found 13 bullet-riddled bodies, which two local residents identified as men who had been detained by the military in January.
Two intelligence officials said the bodies discovered near Mandao village in Shaktoi, South Waziristan, were Taliban fighters. A military spokesman declined to comment.
Residents identified the bodies, which found on Saturday, as locals and said the incident raises further questions about human rights abuses by Pakistani security forces battling the Taliban insurgents. Shaktoi resident Allah Khan told Reuters by telephone that the military arrested 35 people from Mandao in January.
Some material for this report came from Reuters.