ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, Oct. 18 (UPI Next) --
Last month's suicide attacks on a Peshawar church have ratcheted up fears among Pakistan's religious minorities, especially Christians, that their places of worship are not safe.
"The Christian community was already living in fear in Pakistan, and now this attack on worshipers has shown that the government has failed to provide security to minorities and their worship places," the Rev. Samuel Khokhar, president of the Global Peace and Preach Mission in Peshawar, told UPI Next.
On Sept. 22, suicide bombers targeted worshipers at the 130-year-old All Saints Church near the Kohati Gate in the inner city. The attacks killed least 81 people and injured 146.
Jundullah, a wing of Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, has claimed responsibility.
Leaders of other minorities, including Hindus and Sikhs, said they also felt endangered but would not speak publicly for fear that terrorists would attack their places of worship.
This was the first attack on the Christian community in Peshawar, though not the first in Pakistan. In March 2002, five worshipers, including a U.S. diplomat's wife and daughter, were killed and 41 others injured in an attack on an Islamabad church. Four were killed and 24 injured in an attack on a church in Taxlia in August 2002.
Right after the September attack, members of Pakistan's Christian community came out of their homes to show solidarity with the victims. They started rallying in almost all of Pakistan's cities to protest and urge the federal and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provincial governments to provide security at minorities' places of worship.
The provincial government has announced a special aid package. Families of those killed are to receive about $4,800; the critically injured, close to $2,000; and those with less serious injuries, almost $1,000.
Paul Bhatti, chairman of the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance, told UPI Next that despite ongoing threats against minority religion members, "the provincial government ... has failed to provide security to minorities."
Bhatti said the federal government should look into the matter and provide foolproof security in churches across the country.
Archbishop Joseph Coutts, president of the Pakistan Catholic Bishops' Conference, condemned the attack and asked his community to remain peaceful.
"An attack on innocent worshipers, including children and females, is really a shameful act of cowardice," he told UPI Next. "Christians were already living in fear, but after this incident they are in desperation."
Mohammad Ali Babakhel, a police officer who was responsible for security at the church, defended security measures put in place, including walk-through scanners and metal detectors, saying proper security was provided.
"A bomber blew himself up close to the worshipers when the police constable on duty, Zahid Hussain, tried to stop him," Babakhel told UPI Next. "Then another bomber blew himself up to target the panicked worshipers.
"The provincial government has ordered us to increase security around the churches in KPK," he said, referring to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.
Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan condemned the suicide attacks and told UPI Next a few days later that a strong security plan for churches and other places of worship would be developed in cooperation with the provincial government.
"The federal government will take the responsibility to reconstruct the damaged church and will bear all the expenses," he said.
Julius Salik, former federal minister for minorities, told UPI Next the government had failed to protect the Christian community.
"The federal government should provide foolproof security to Christians, and especially their worship places, as the government has received more threats of targeting Christians in Pakistan," he said.
Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf Chairman Imran Khan, whose party controls the provincial government, strongly condemned the attack on worshipers and said the nation was united on the issue of restoring peace through dialogue with Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan.
Khan, speaking to UPI Next, said after the recent All Parties Conference that all Pakistan political parties were agreed on talks with the Taliban to restore peace.
"This attack is a clear message that peace through talks is not acceptable to certain elements," he said.
"Security will be upgraded around churches and residential colonies of the Christian community”
Masud ul Hassan, general secretary of the Pakistan Ex-Servicemen Association and a retired brigadier, strongly condemned the attack on worshipers, calling it a brutal crime against humanity committed in the name of Islam.
"PESA has requested two private security companies to provide, free of cost, security service on Sunday during church services," he said. He added that the ex-servicemen who would guard churches are members of PESA.
If the federal government cannot provide security to minorities, Khokhar said, Christians living in Pakistan should be sent to Christian-majority countries.