Peshawar (AsiaNews) - "My soul is overwhelmed by deep sorrow and great distress for the horrible massacre of innocent children in the school in Peshawar. The loss of young and precious lives in neighbouring Pakistan is a source of grief and mourning also for my country, India," said Card Oswald Gracias, archbishop of Mumbai.
The prelate, who is also president of the Federation of Asian Bishops (FABC), spoke to AsiaNews after an armed Taliban commando affiliated with the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) this morning stormed a military-run school in Peshawar, catering to students aged 7 to 14.
Preliminary reports put the death toll at least 120 people, including 84 students. Scores of people are injured, and the final tally is constantly being updated since the attack is still underway. Islamic terrorists still hold some students out of the 500 who attend the school.
This is a "tragedy that unites us all," the Indian prelate told AsiaNews, because "their loss is our loss." In view of this spiral "of senseless violence, the Church of India extends its condolences to those who suffer and pledges its prayers for the relatives and families of the victims."
"Tomorrow, being the Christmas Novena, we the Catholic Church in India, especially our school children, will dedicate ourselves more fervently to prayer and to acts of peace as we pray to the Prince of Peace who alone can bring true peace to the world."
The school under attack is on Warsak Road, not far from an Army Housing Colony and a medical school, in Peshawar, the capital of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, in northern Pakistan, not far from the Afghan border.
Wearing uniforms used by the school' security staff, a six-men commando had orders to shoot to kill as many people as possible. Taliban sources say the attack was "revenge" for operations launched by Pakistan's military against their forces in North Waziristan and Khyber agency.
"We were in the class," said a student, Shiraz Khan. "We heard firing and explosions, our teacher told us to get on the floor, stay under the chair and the tables. As someone moved, they were shot. There was blood all around."
According to police sources, one of the bombers blew himself up once inside the building. Security forces also jammed signal frequencies to stop the attackers from communicating with the outside. Pakistani Prime Minister Mian Muhammad Nawaz Sharif ordered the evacuation of students and school staff.
Meanwhile, voices of condemnation against the brutal attack come from various directions.
For Maulana Tariq Jameel, from the Ehl and Sunat Islamic movement, the attack against "innocent people" was "barbaric" and "must be condemned in no uncertain terms."
Fr Arshad John, from the Diocese of Peshawar, agrees. "We stand with the Pakistani army and the students," he said. "Our prayers are also for the success of evacuation operations, that they may end in success."
In the recent past, Peshawar saw a number of bloody attacks against mosques and churches.
Many still remember the massacre on 22 September 2013 in the city's All Saints Anglican Church, when two suicide bombers blew themselves up near the building, killing more than 140 people with 161 wounded.
Likewise, last January a bomb hit a mosque during a prayer service for peace and religious coexistence, with dozens of dead and wounded.
With a population of more than 180 million people (97 per cent Muslim), Pakistan is the sixth most populous country in the world, the second largest Muslim nation after Indonesia.
About 80 per cent of Muslims are Sunni, whilst Shias are 20 per cent. Hindus are 1.85 per cent, followed by Christians (1.6 per cent) and Sikhs (0.04 per cent).
Since Taliban violence began in 2007, about 6,800 people have died in various attacks, including bombings and targeted killings.
(Nirmala Carvalho contributed to this article)