On Sunday, a suicide bomb and gun attack on a church in the western Pakistani city of Quetta killed at least nine and wounded dozens of others.
According to officials, The attack on the Bethel Memorial Methodist Church began as worshippers gathered inside to attend the weekly service. One attacker detonated his explosives belt at the entrance to the church compound after forcing his way in through the entrance. A second attacker armed with an assault rifle, who was able to penetrate the church building, began firing on victims before being neutralized by security guards at the scene. In addition to the at least nine fatalities, officials at the nearby Civil Hospital reported 33 people were wounded in the attack.
Two additional attackers were seen fleeing the scene. After responding security forces created a security perimeter, a search began for the other assailants.
The Khorasan Province of ISIS, the jihadist group’s Afghanistan and Pakistan wing, claimed responsibility for the attack.
Sunday’s attack highlights a particularly disturbing trend in Pakistan of militants targeting Christian minorities in the country. Pakistan has quite a substantial Christian population for an Islamic republic. Three million Christians, roughly half of whom are Roman Catholic, as well as other various Protestant denominations, live throughout major urban areas of the country. Balochistan province where Quetta is located has one of the largest concentrations of Christians in Pakistan, numbering close to 350,000.
This community of Christians has been increasingly targeted by jihadists over the past 15 years, by groups ranging from Al Qaeda to ISIS. While many of these attacks are small operations, involving relatively low key weapons and explosives, many are large, coordinated operations that result in mass casualty incidents. Take the infamous Peshawar church bombing of 2013 for example. The attackers of the Pakistani militant group Jundallah planned the approach on their target and the elimination of the security guards so as to maximize casualties. Their collective payload of a whopping six kilograms of explosives killed 127 and wounded some 250 others.
Balochistan Province has become a hot target for militants, with six attacks occurring in the province since June. Four of those incidents have been in the city of Quetta.
The systematic targeting of Christians in Pakistan has forced churchgoers in the country to incorporate serious security into running their houses of worship. Often, stationed security personnel are invaluable in preventing an attack from escalating, the recent incident in Quetta being a case in point. However, in many such incidents, security guards are outgunned and outmanned, facing well-trained attackers armed with explosives and assault weapons.
The only solution to this trend of increasing attacks may be another massive military operation on the part of the Pakistani military to root out jihadi infrastructure. These large and costly operations have been successful in curtailing terror in the past, such as the 2014 operation in the north-western tribal areas. That effort was majorly successful in pushing back the Pakistani Taliban out of their sanctuaries and back into Afghan territory.
With attacks targeting Christian minorities underscoring the broader trend of extremist activity in the country, and the US increasingly exerting pressure on Islamabad to crack down on militant Islam, it may only be a matter of time before Pakistan takes on another large-scale military effort.