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Pakistani Christians clash with cops after attacks

Zaheer Babar
Associated Press

LaHore, Pakistan — Pakistani police fired tear gas on Monday after Christian protesters clashed with police in the eastern city of Lahore, a day after Taliban suicide bombers killed 17 people in suicide attacks on two churches in the city.

Sunday’s twin bombings struck in quick succession in the Christian neighborhood of Youhanabad during morning services. The bombers detonated their suicide vests outside the two churches, about 650 yards apart. At least 70 people were wounded in the attacks, the latest assault on religious minorities in this increasingly fractured country.

After the attacks, angry Christian mobs blocked the highway, ransacked bus terminals and burned two people to death who they suspected of being involved in the bombings. Christian demonstrators also blocked roads Monday in the eastern cities of Faisalabad, Sargodha and Gujranwala.

In Lahore, they blocked a major highway that runs near the two targeted churches and forced public transport services to shut down. They later pelted the police with stones and smashed police cars and other vehicles, according to Rana Sanaullah, an official with the ruling PML-N party. He said officers were trying to calm down the situation.

Lahore’s Police Deputy Inspector General Haider Ashraf told reporters that his men were “showing restraint” but had to fire tear gas canisters when the situation deteriorated. The city Commissioner Abdullah Sumbal Khan said Pakistani paramilitary troops had been called in to restore order.

A least one protester died after being hit by a car, Ashraf said. Local television stations aired footage showing the car speeding away from the scene after hitting several protesters. Ashraf put the total death toll from Sunday’s bombings at 17, after two of wounded later died in the hospital.

Christian schools remained closed as prayer services and funerals for the bombing victims took place, said Shipping and Ports Minister Kamran Michael, a prominent Christian community leader.

Also Monday, Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan denounced the church attacks as an “inhuman act of terrorism” and said it reflected the militants’ “frustration” in the face of a stepped-up military operation against them. Last June, Pakistan launched a major operation to rout militants from their strongholds.

“We have shrunk the space for them to operate,” Khan said Monday.

Life in Pakistan is increasingly dangerous for religious minorities. They have been targeted by extremist Sunni Muslim militants and are also discriminated against in the wider society, where they are often limited to menial jobs like garbage collection.

Much of the country is already on edge after years of militant violence, including an attack on a Peshawar school in December that killed 150 people — mostly students.

The Pakistani Taliban group, which claimed responsibility for the church attacks, has been waging an insurgency for over a decade, seeking to overthrow the government and install their own brand of fundamentalist Islamic rule. Thousands of Pakistanis have been killed in the attacks.