At least 14 people have been killed and nearly 80 others were injured in two church bombings carried out by a Pakistani Taliban splinter group on Sunday in the Christian neighborhood of Youhanabad, Lahore. The Catholic faithful are marking a "day of prayer for the innocent lives of the martyrs" on Monday to honor the victims.
Reuters reported that the death toll might've been higher, if it wasn't for the quick actions of a security guard who attempted to prevent one of the suicide bombers from entering one of the churches.
"I was sitting at a shop near the church when a blast jolted the area. I rushed toward the spot and saw the security guard scuffle with a man who was trying to enter the church. After failing, he blew himself up," said witness Amir Masih.
"I saw his body parts flying through the air."
The bombings occurred minutes apart from each other other, and targeted one Catholic and one Protestant church that are located very close to each other.
BBC News noted that witnesses have said suicide bombers were responsible for both blasts, but police are still investigating the incident. A group described as an offshoot of the Pakistan Taliban, called Jamatul Ahrar, has claimed responsibility for the attack.
Back in December, the Taliban carried out a school massacre in Peshawar, where it killed 148 people, including a number of students.
Christians in Pakistan make up less than 2 percent of the population, which is predominantly Muslim, and have accused the government of ignoring their plight and the injustices carried out against them.
Fides News Agency reported that His Exc. Mgr. Sebastian Shaw OFM, Archbishop of Lahore, announced that all Catholic schools and institutes will be closed on Monday.
"Their blood was not shed in vain and will bring peace to all citizens of Pakistan," Shaw said.
He added that he prays that "peace and harmony prevail in the country" and called on all citizens to "openly reject violence and terrorism."
His Exc. Mgr. Joseph Coutts, archbishop of Karachi and president of the Episcopal Conference of Pakistan, added: "The Catholic Church strongly condemns the brutal suicide attacks on churches in Lahore. We beg the government in Punjab and the federal government of Pakistan to take adequate measures for the protection of churches and religious minorities in Pakistan."
The statement continued: "The government, political parties, religious leaders and every citizen of Pakistan are called to speak out against extremist forces, alongside their Christian brothers and sisters. Believers of all religions must promote peace and social harmony and protect each other from terrorism. The Catholic Church and other religious minorities in Pakistan are asking the government to take effective measures to guarantee freedom of religion in the country."
Pope Francis noted that he felt "great pain" over the bomb attacks, and told the Vatican audience from St. Peter's Square on Sunday: "These are Christian churches. Christians are persecuted, our brothers spill their blood simply because they are Christians."
Christian Solidarity Worldwide, which has been tracking persecution of Christians in Pakistan and the surrounding region, called on the government to do all it can to bring the attackers to justice. CSW also recalled the deadly twin suicide attacks on All Saints Church in Peshawar in 2013, which killed 180 people.
"We extend our deepest condolences to those who loved ones and the many injured in today's church bombings in Lahore. Lessons must be learned from the 2013 attacks in Peshawar; the perpetrators must be held to account and the Pakistani government must act swiftly to address the attacks on minority religious groups in the country and be proactive in ensuring protection for places of worship," said CSW's Chief Executive Mervyn Thomas.