NEW DELHI — A pair of suicide bombers killed 78 people outside a church in northwestern Pakistan on Sunday in the deadliest attack yet on the country's Christian minority, reviving fears that the newly installed government is powerless to stop the resurgent Taliban's reign of terror.
The attack on the 19th-century All Saints Church in Peshawar took place as hundreds of worshippers were streaming out of the church, police chief Mohammad Ali Babakhel told the newspaper Dawn.
"The suicide bomber tried to attack the people, but when he was stopped by the police, he detonated the bomb," he said. "The second blast was carried out inside the church."
Witnesses described a scene of dust, debris and devastation. Police told Dawn that 120 people were wounded and the bomber's body parts had been retrieved. Others just cried, expressing shock at the attack, and mourning those lost.
Fourth-year medical student Noel Williams, 20, died in the attack with members of his family.
"I'm trying to recall each and every thing he said the last time we met," said his shaken friend Meraj Aleem, 19, a dentistry student in Peshawar. "He was a passionate student and more so a youngster who wanted to work for the betterment of his country."
The Pakistani Jundullah wing of the Taliban claimed responsibility for the bombings. The group vowed to continue to target non-Muslims in the country until the United States halts drone attacks, the group told the Associated Press. The better-known Pakistani Taliban group, Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, denied responsibility for the attack.
"All non-Muslims in Pakistan are our target, and they will remain our target as long as America fails to stop drone strikes in our country," Ahmad Marwat, who identified himself as the spokesman for the Jundullah wing, told the Associated Press.
Following the attack, outraged protesters took to the street, attacking police as stores and markets shut down. Demonstrations spread to other cities, including Karachi, which is also home to the Christian minority, numbering 2.5 million of the country's 182 million population.
Christian leaders and other Christian Pakistanis blamed the Pakistani government for failing to protect them against the militants.
"What message should we as (a Christian) community get?" Aleem asked. "That we are not equal citizens or that we have no stake in this country?"
Analysts say the government is struggling with the growing threat from its homegrown Taliban groups, who have carried out dozens of attacks since June, when Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif took office.
His approach, rejected by many of the governing elites, is to negotiate with the Taliban, which he says is the only way to contain the threat since military operations in the northwestern tribal areas have failed to stamp out their influence. The Taliban is asking for an end to U.S. drone strikes and the release of members from prison.
The security situation in the country has led to the deterioration of Pakistan's relations with the United States.
Following the September 11 attacks, the U.S. increased its military aid to nearly $1.3 billion a year and pressured the Pakistani government to fight extremism at home and the Taliban in Afghanistan, something widely unpopular in Pakistan. That was followed by an increase in domestic terrorism.
The United States has long accused Pakistan of not doing enough to fight the Taliban or, worse, secretly assisting the Taliban and other extremists.
Pakistan's leaders dispute that, and say the church attacks show the terrorists must be driven from their country.
"The terrorists have no religion, and targeting innocent people is against the teachings of Islam and all religions," Sharif in a written statement. "Such cruel acts of terrorism reflect the brutality and inhumane mind-set of the terrorists."
Bhatti reported from Berlin