Peshawar: as Christians protest against violence, prayer held in the church where massacre took place
by Jibran Khan
A religious service is held at the All Saints Church to remember the victims. Across the country, protests are held against the Islamist attacks. Muslim leaders express solidarity, but the religious minority wants justice. Catholic leaders appeal for calm and non-violence.

Islamabad (AsiaNews) - Two days after a bloody attack against the Christian minority in Peshawar, its members are still in shock and terrified, with a sense of anger and frustration.

Across the country, protests continue over the massacre perpetrated by extremists with suspicions centred on two Islamist groups. However, nothing is certain, except, according to the official but tentative estimate, 83 dead and 150 wounded, a toll bound to rise, because several of the wounded are still hospitalised in critical condition.

Meanwhile, the Church of All Saints in Peshawar, in the northern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, reopened yesterday for a religious service in remembrance of the victims of an attack that both Christian and Muslim religious leaders described as "coward" and "shameful."

Tens of thousands of people, Christians and Muslims, took to the streets yesterday and today in Lahore, Islamabad, Karachi, Faisalabad and other cities of Pakistan to protest against the massacre.

In some cases, the demonstrations turned violent with one person reportedly killed in clashes with police charged with ensuring security.

In Peshawar, protesters blocked the city's main streets for several hours; similar scenes were seen in the capital and Lahore.

Some reports indicate that a number of people (three or more) are being held on suspicion of involvement in the massacre.

Some witnesses say that one of the two suicide bombers was a woman in her twenties, but there is no official confirmation.

Appeals for calm and peaceful protests have come from many sections of society, particularly from the Pakistani Christian leadership and the country's Catholic bishops, who fear an escalation of the violence.

Ordinary citizens, students, teachers, priests, nuns, Christian and Muslim religious leaders are in the streets, with slogans and signs that strongly condemn the suicide bombing and call for greater protection of religious minorities.

The horror experienced on Sunday at the end of a prayer service still lingers in the minds of the wounded and other survivors.

"We came out of Sunday school and there was a huge explosion. I cannot believe I lost my friends. I will never be able to see them again," said a tearful 12-year-old boy, Salman John.

The Muslim community is also in mourning, showing its solidarity with Christians. Maulana Tariq Shah, a Muslim scholar in Peshawar, said that "Islam teaches us to protect minorities. This is a barbaric act."

Lahore-based human rights activist Iftikhar Ahmed agrees, noting that the principles on which Ali Jinnah, the founder of modern Pakistan, established the state includes the notion that all citizens should feel "free" and safe in attending their mosque, church or temple.

Nauman Hafeez Kadir, a member of the Islamic Ideology Council, expressed his closeness and solidarity "to our Christian brothers and sisters" affected by "terrorists who have no religion" and that the government "must punish."

Mgr Sebastian Shah, archbishop of Lahore, and Mgr Rufin Anthony, bishop of Islamabad/Rawalpindi, visited the wounded in hospitals and prayed for the victims.

The bishops called on protesters to demonstrate peacefully and avoid damaging public goods.

Bishop Joseph Coutts, archbishop of Karachi and president of the Bishops' Conference, spoke of a "political problem", explaining that the government, not religious leaders, must decide whether to talk with the Taliban or proceed with an offensive military.

Fr Bonnie Mendes blamed successive governments for their failure to fight against the country's shift towards Islamism, and to provide religious minorities with equal rights and opportunities.

(Shafique Khokhar contributed to the article)

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