Quetta church attack victim: What place is safe?

Family members of nine people killed in ISIL-claimed attack on a church in Quetta struggle to cope after brazen assault.

    The brazen attack on Pakistan's minority Christian community came just a week before Christmas [Naseer Ahmed/Reuters]
    The brazen attack on Pakistan's minority Christian community came just a week before Christmas [Naseer Ahmed/Reuters]

    Islamabad, Pakistan - Nobody in the Gil family ever misses the weekly service at the Bethel Memorial Methodist Church in Quetta, Pakistan.

    But last Sunday marked an exception. Barkat Gil had to tend to a work emergency. There was a shutdown that morning at the state electricity infrastructure company.

    "My youngest son called me, telling me to go to the church quickly, there had been a bomb blast," the 54-year-old told Al Jazeera. "Security forces had closed the roads. I went to the Civil Hospital because they were bringing the wounded there."

    Barkat Gil is mourning the loss of his daughter Madeeha and 14-year-old niece Mehak Sohail [Saadullah Akhtar/Al Jazeera]

    His 30-year-old daughter Madeeha Gil and 14-year-old niece Mehak Sohail were among the victims.

    "My daughter in particular loved attending church, and she used to spend so much of her time praying, even at home," he said. "We are such regulars at the church that if we ever don't come on Sunday, then people are often worried about our absence."

    By the time Madeeha reached the hospital, her breathing was shallow and she was unresponsive. She had been shot in the neck.

    When the doctors returned from the operation theatre, they announced that they could not save her.

    Days earlier, Gil's wife Parveen had bought their only daughter a new dress for Christmas.

    On Monday, Madeeha was buried in it.

    While he never imagined his particular church would be attacked, he always knew it was a possibility.

    "The threat is there in the whole country. What place is safe? No one is safe in their own houses, or even in God's house. Not in a church, in a mosque, in an imambargah [a Shia Muslim mosque], or in a gurdwara [a Sikh place of worship]. The fear is always there."

    At that, he asked if he could be excused.

    The funeral for his niece was about to begin, and he had to deliver the sermon.

    'He was firing at us'

    At least nine people were killed in total as two attackers stormed the church, which was filled to capacity with 400 worshippers. Sunday marked a special day, with a children's Christmas play also scheduled.

    One of the attackers detonated his suicide vest at the entrance.

    The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) claimed responsibility for the attack on the church in Quetta but did not provide corroborating evidence such as the names and photographs of the bombers, as it had done for previous attacks in Pakistan.

    A forensic team member collects evidence amidst the damage after gunmen attacked the Bethel Memorial Methodist Church in Quetta [Naseer Ahmed/Reuters]

    Before the blast, Alexander Calvin had been ready to watch his six-year-old daughter in the children's performance.

    The 51-year-old sent his little girl, dressed in white with small angel wings, to the school building and sat in the adjacent main church hall to pray.

    He never expected the day to end in a deafening explosion and a hail of bullets.

    "I heard the first bullets, and then after, a short pause, it was constant," said Calvin, a news photographer from the southwestern city. "I ran first to the Sunday school building to lock the door and told them to lock it from the inside. Then I ran back to the church."

    Calvin, his daughter and four-year-old son survived the brazen attack on Pakistan's minority Christian community just a week before Christmas, which also wounded at least 55 people.

    Security personnel killed one of the attackers at the gate and injured a gunman.

    "We could see him coming towards us," said Calvin. "He had been shot in the arm and the leg, but he was still firing at us."

    Inside, there was pandemonium.

    Men, women and children were screaming, with several attempting to get to the adjacent Sunday school building to save their children, witnesses said.

    "I had locked the front door of the church," said Calvin. "[The attacker] got to the main door. He touched the door, and when he saw it was locked, and he exploded himself at the door itself.

    "A wooden door is nothing in front of explosives - everyone who was in front of the door was hit by the blast. Five people were killed instantly, and many more were wounded."

    Security 'success'?

    In the aftermath, Sarfaraz Bugti, the provincial home minister in Balochistan, of which Quetta is the capital, said security forces had prevented a higher death toll.

    "God forbid if the terrorists had succeeded in their plans more than 400 precious lives would have been at stake," he tweeted.

    Police and paramilitary forces completed their operation to secure the church within 16 minutes, he said, "neutralising" the attackers.

    Bodies of victims are taken to a hospital after the suicide attack [Anadolu]

    Four police personnel were already attached to the church, with a spotter on the roof helped by three police officers on the church grounds.

    "Even one death is too many, but this was why it was lower," Talal Chaudhry, Pakistan's minister of state for interior affairs, said in reference to the security forces. "The suicide attackers ... thought they could kill 400 people, including children, we have been saved from a huge death toll."

    Yes there could have been much greater casualties, but that is not the criterion that one should be judging on

    Zahid Hussain, security analyst and journalist

    Analysts disagree, saying Pakistan's security should prevent attacks, not just react to those that take place.

    "In the Pakistani situation, even a few casualties are seen as a security success, but I don't think it is," said Zahid Hussain, a security analyst and journalist. "Yes there could have been much greater casualties, but that is not the criterion that one should be judging on."

    Hussain pointed to a pattern of bombings and attacks in Balochistan province that have targeted security personnel as well as members of the Hazara Shia, Sufi and Christian minorities.

    In October, at least 18 people were killed when a suicide bomber targeted a shrine in central Balochistan.

    Days later, five people were killed in Quetta in an attack that targeted Hazara Shia Muslims.

    In all, 242 people have been killed in attacks in Balochistan in 2017, according to the South Asia Terrorism Portal.

    People hold signs for the victims who were killed [Akhtar Soomro/Reuters]

    Sectarian groups such as the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, a faction of which has worked with ISIL in the past, are among those behind attacks.

    "I'm not saying that [the church attack] can be described as a security failure," said Hussain, "but certainly there is a need to increase the effort and strengthen intelligence gathering.

    "Success can be gauged by how many attacks were prevented, not how low the casualties were."

    Follow Asad Hashim on Twitter: @AsadHashim

    Additional reporting by Saadullah Akhtar in Quetta.

    At least nine people were killed in the attack [Saadullah Akhtar/Al Jazeera]

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News


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