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2001: Christians killed in Pakistan massacre

Masked gunmen have burst into a church in eastern Pakistan killing 18 people including children who were at prayer.

The attack - the worst against Christians in Pakistani history - took place during a service attended by over 100 people at a church in the town of Bahawalpur.

The identity of the attackers is not yet known but reports suggest there had been fears of a possible retaliation by Islamic extremists following the US strikes on neighbouring Afghanistan.

According to officials, members of a banned Islamic militant group are under suspicion.

Worshippers said that as the gunmen opened fire they declared Pakistan would become a graveyard of Christians to avenge deaths in Afghanistan.

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

"We will track down the culprits"

Pakistan President General Musharraf

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

Eyewitness reports suggest the gunmen locked the doors and sprayed bullets at the Protestant congregation who were using the church at the time, riddling the walls with bullet holes.

Pakistan President General Musharraf has strongly condemned the attack.

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

This is the largest ever attack on Pakistan's Christian minority and has led to shock and fear throughout the community. "We already were fearful and now we are really fearful. What is our future?" said one.

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

In Context
The death toll was later reduced to 17. This included 16 Christian worshippers and one police guard who had been stationed outside the church.

In July 2002 four people were arrested in connection with the massacre. Two of those arrested are said to be members of the outlawed Sunni organisation, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. Three other suspects are still at large.

Several thousand people turned out for the funerals of the victims which were held in the compound of the church where the attack took place.

Many of the mourners chanted slogans calling for revenge and demanding protection.

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