A twin suicide bombing killed more than 78 people, including 34 women and seven children, at a church service in northwest Pakistan yesterday in what is believed to be the deadliest attack on Christians in the country.
The two attackers struck at the end of a service at All Saints Church in Peshawar, the main town in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province which has borne the brunt of a bloody Islamist insurgency in recent years.
Dr Arshad Javed of Peshawar's Lady Reading Hospital said more than 100 were wounded.
Provincial health minister Shaukat Ali Yousufzai confirmed the death toll.
Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif condemned the "cruel" attack, saying it violated the tenets of Islam.
Sahibzada Anees, one of Peshawar's most senior officials, said the bombers struck when the service had just ended. "Most of the wounded are in critical condition," Anees said.
"We are in an area which is a target of terrorism and within that area there was a special security arrangement for the church. We are in a rescue phase and once it is over we will investigate what went wrong."
Former minister for inter-faith harmony Paul Bhatti and provincial lawmaker Fredrich Azeem Ghauri both said the attack was the deadliest ever targeting Christians in Pakistan.
Schoolteacher Nazir Khan, 50, said the service had just ended and at least 400 worshippers were greeting each other when there was a huge explosion.
"A huge blast threw me on the floor and as soon as I regained my senses, a second blast took place and I saw wounded people everywhere," Khan said.
Shreds of flesh and bloodstains covered the walls and floor of the church, whose windows were ripped apart by the blast.
Pages of a Bible were scattered near the altar and rice meals mingled with dust on the floor amid shattered benches. Walls were gouged with ball bearings used in the explosives.
Grieving relatives blocked the main highway with bodies of the victims to protest against the killings. Christians in Karachi, Lahore, Multan and other cities also staged rallies to condemn the killings and demand state protection for their lives and properties.
In Karachi, protesters clashed with police when they tried to clear a road in Isa Nagri, a low-income Christian neighbourhood.
Pakistan's Ulema Council, an association of leading Muslim scholars, condemned the attack and said killing innocent people breaches the tenets of Islam.
Islamist militants have carried out hundreds of bombings targeting security forces and minority Muslim groups they regard as heretical, but attacks on Christians have previously largely been confined to grenade attacks and occasional riots.
Ghauri said there are 200,000 Christians in the province, of whom 70,000 live in Peshawar.
"Now after this attack, Christians across Pakistan will fear for their lives," he warned.