At least nine worshipers were killed and over 50 others were injured after Islamic extremists conducted an attack on a church in southwestern Pakistan during a Sunday pre-Christmas service.
The Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the attack on Bethel Memorial Methodist Church in the town of Quetta, the capital city of the Baluchistan province, according to its media arm, the Amaq News Agency.
Government officials told international media that one radical detonated himself at the gate of the church, while another was killed while shooting at worshippers.
According to the home minister for the south-western Baluchistan province, Sarfraz Bugti, as many as 400 worshippers were attending the service. Police officials have also said that the attack could have been even more deadly if it were not for the swift actions of security forces to take out the attackers.
"Otherwise the loss of lives could have been much higher," Baluchistan police chief, Moazzam Ansari was quoted by The Guardian as saying.
The police chief also told media that the church was on heightened alert because of the increased threat of terror during the Christmas season. He asserted that had the militants been able to reach the sanctuary without resistance of security forces, the attack could have been even more catastrophic.
Police official Abdur Razaq Cheema told media that at least two attackers were able to escape and said that a search is underway.
"Arguably, the quick response of the security forces at the church reduced the impact of this attack, but that has done nothing to ease the anxiety that Christians are feeling," Wilson Chowdhry, chairman of the London-based charity British Pakistani Christian Association, said in a statement shared with The Christian Post. "Christians clearly need more protection as two attacks on churches in two months is becoming too common an incident."
According to Reuters, the attack left much destruction inside the church with broken pews, glass and blood splattered on the church's Christmas tree.
Reuters also notes that despite claiming responsibility for the attack, Amaq News Agency shared no further details about the attack.
Hospital officials told media two women were among the dead and 10 women and seven children were among those injured.
According to the The New York Times, the attack comes as military and paramilitary troops have been deployed to Quetta, which has suffered from violent attacks recently.
Human rights activists and advocates have called for the government to provide greater protections for Christians during Christmas time.
According to the Associated Press, dozens of protesters gathered outside a local hospital to protest the lack of security for Christians and other religious minorities.
"Law enforcement agencies have badly failed in protecting common citizens, and minorities in particular," Shamaun Alfred Gill, a Christian activist in Islamabad told The New York Times.
"December is a month of Christian religious rituals," Gill added. "We had demanded the government beef up security for churches all over the country. But they have failed to do so."
Pakistan ranks as the fourth worst nation in the world when it comes to Christian persecution, according to Open Doors USA's 2017 World Watch List.
The attack on the church in Quetta follows several other deadly attacks on churches in the Muslim-majority country in the last few years. One of those attacks was the Easter Sunday suicide bombing on a church in Lahore in 2016 that killed at least 73 people, including 29 children.
"Attacking worshipers, especially over the Christmas season, is an act of cowardice," Nasir Saeed, Director of the U.K.-based Centre for Legal Aid, Assistance and Settlement, said in a statement. "It is condemnable and such hate and violence cannot help anyone to make a place in Heaven."
The British Pakistani Christian Association has sent out its officers to help assist families victimized by the attack. BPCA is raising funds to help the victims of Christian persecution in Pakistan and throughout Asia.
"While people in the West eat mince pies and turkey, Christians in Pakistan will be praying for an extra day of their earthly lives and for the protection of their children," Chowdhry said.