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Sunday, 28 October, 2001, 14:26 GMT
Christians massacred in Pakistan
Pakistani police guard a Catholic church in Rawalpindi
Security was stepped up outside other churches
Unidentified masked gunmen on motorcycles have opened fire indiscriminately on worshippers in a church in eastern Pakistan, killing at least 18 people.

Police say dozens more are seriously injured.


They were carrying bags and when they came they took out guns

Witness
The attack took place during a service attended by over 100 people at a Roman Catholic church in the town of Bahawalpur, some 100 kilometres (60 miles) south of the city of Multan, in Punjab Province.

No one has so far said they carried out the attack, but officials said members of a banned Islamic group were under suspicion.

One witness said six men on three motorcycles rode up to Saint Dominic's Church and pulled out AK-47 assault rifles, shooting two police guards before entering the packed church.


I would... like to assure everyone that we will track down the culprits and bring them to justice

President Musharraf
"They were carrying bags and when they came in they took out guns," the witness told Reuters news agency.

Survivors say the gunmen locked the doors and sprayed fire at the Protestant congregation who were using the church at the time, riddling the walls with bullet holes.

Terrified worshippers are said to have scrambled for cover, some taking shelter in a small room behind the altar, but most were hit.

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf said he was deeply saddened by the killings, which he blamed on trained terrorists.

Both the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury have offered prayers to the victims' families.

Christians tense

The area has a history of tensions between Sunni and Shia Muslim extremists, and hundreds of Muslims have died in sectarian violence over the years.

But Sunday's shooting, police say, is the first such attack on Christians in the region, which is near the border with India.

Some Christians neighbourhoods had, however, already stepped their security.

The BBC's Susannah Price in Islamabad says there have been fears among the Christian community of a possible retaliation by Islamic extremists, following the US strikes on neighbouring Afghanistan.

Christians make up about 1% of Pakistan's 120 million population.

In 1997, Muslim rioters in southern Punjab burned and looted hundreds of Christians' homes and ransacked 13 churches and a school, accusing some Christians of committing blasphemy against the Prophet Mohammed.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Jill McGivering
"No-one knows who the armed men were"
Dr Francis Nazir, Catholic community worker,
talks to the BBC's Susannah Price
Enver Mahmood, Pakistan Secretary for Information
"This is an attack not just against the Christian community but against Pakistan itself"
See also:

28 Oct 01 | South Asia
Analysis: Pakistan's Christian minority
05 Jun 01 | South Asia
Musharraf condemns religious hardliners
16 Oct 01 | Country profiles
Country profile: Pakistan
20 Jun 01 | South Asia
Timeline: Pakistan
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