According to witnesses, six people on two motorcycles (Honda 125) came in the church lawns. First they killed Constable Muhammad Saleem, who was on guard duty outside to protect the minority Christian community. Then two of them stayed outside the main hall of the church and other four, armed with sophisticated weapons, entered the church hall at 8:55 am. Advocate Nazir Nayyar, spokesman of the church, said that the terrorists sprayed bullets on the Christians, singing hymns. In order to ensure maximum killings they closed the hall door and continued firing for several minutes, said a witness. After executing their killing spree, the terrorists fled on the motorcycles. No arrest had been made till our going to the press.
The victims were identified as Priest Emmanuel, 50, constable Salim, Irum Javed Umer, 18, Kashif Javed and his four daughters and one son, Hina Jamsheed, 2, Waqas Jamsheed, 8, Nelson Jamsheed, 34, Riffat Javed, wife of Jamsheed Akhtar, and Javed Akhtar. Funeral ceremony, which was initially scheduled to be held on Sunday evening, was postponed till Monday (today) at 11:00 am. The ceremony will be conducted by Multan Bishop Andrew Francis.
Speaking from the church's telephone, advocate Nazir Nayyar told The News that soon after the killings they contacted the nearest police station but they did not entertain them on the pretext that this was not their jurisdiction. Then the Cant Police Station was approached, which initially was not willing to listen to the complaint either.
He said the principal of the Convent Girls School, where the church is situated, approached the Bahawalpur DIG, complaining that they were feeling insecure and requesting for security one day ago. The result was, he regretted, that the very next day, 16 innocent people were killed. Talking to The News, Punjab Home Secretary Brig Ejaz Shah (retd) said this was out and out a terrorist activity, be external or internal. In past, terrorists killed innocent people to settle score and these terrorists used to take shelter in neighbouring countries which never handed over such elements to the Pakistan government.
District Nazim Tariq Bashir Cheema said this was very a dastardly and tragic incident and the people involved in it should not be spared. He said he spent almost all of his time with Christians to console them. He added that he would hold a meeting of the administration and remain part of the investigation into the terror act after the funeral rites. On Christians' grievance regarding police negligence, he said that no person found negligent would be spared and all efforts would be made to ensure security of minorities in the area.
Despite repeated calls The News could not contact the DIG and the SSP of Bahawalpur. The gory incident shocked the government and they sent two federal ministers, SK Tressler and Mahmud Ahmad Ghazi, to Bahawalpur to express condolence with the Christian community. Similarly the Punjab government sent Law Minister Khalid Ranjah and the IGP to show solidarity with the Christian community, besides reviewing the law and order situation there.
The IGP also attended meetings of the Bahawalpur administration to avert further terrorist incidents and to arrest the culprits. In Bahawalpur area, religious extremists as well as external intelligence agencies are very active. The area is considered highly sensitive when sectarian clashes are on the peak. The Indian intelligence agency RAW is also very active there and many a RAW agent have been arrested there.
Meanwhile, a press note issued by Bahawalpur Nazim Tariq Bashir Cheema regarding the tragic incident at St Cathedral Church says: "Today six unknown persons riding two motorbikes and equipped with deadly weapons, opened fire on the police official at a camp outside the church. Later, they forcibly entered the church and fired at the people who were busy at worship, resulting in the instant death of seven persons.
The injured were rushed to the Victoria Hospital Bahawalpur where eight persons succumbed to injuries. Seven people are undergoing treatment and one is in critical condition at the hospital. Upon receiving the news of the tragedy, the district administration reached the spot. The case has been registered. Raiding teams have been constituted for apprehending the culprits. The entire situation is in the control of the district administration."
Police said three gunmen opened fire with Kalashnikov, killing and wounding people in the protestant congregation. "The service was about to finish when three bearded men got into the hall and sprayed bullets everywhere," Bahawalpur SSP Arif Ikram told AFP. "Before that they shot the police constable outside the church. They killed 12 on the spot inside the hall and three people expired in hospital," he said, adding that five were seriously wounded in hospital.
President Pervez Musharraf said that the "inhuman" tactics involved in the slaying indicated that trained terrorists had been involved. "I strongly condemn this act of terrorism. I would like to assure everyone that we shall track down the culprits and bring them to justice," he said in a statement.
Barrister Shahida termed the incident barbaric and against the spirit of Islam and vowed that the government would award exemplary punishment to the culprits. Former premier Benazir Bhutto also condemned the massacre and urged the government to punish the culprits. The 40-year-old St Dominic's church in Bahawalpur had previously been run by American preachers but most of them had left the country, following the September 11 terror strikes in the US, church officials said.
Sister Anna Bakhshi, the principal of the Bahawalpur convent school, told AFP that the church was owned by the local Roman Catholic community but was being shared by a protestant group. She said she believed that the killers had intended to attack a Catholic service, which would have been attended by a larger number of people, but they were probably not aware of a change in the schedule made only last week.
SSP Ikram said he suspected Islamic extremists from any one of a number of militant groups which operate in the area were responsible for the slaughter, although police were still investigating all leads. "It could be linked to the US attacks against Afghanistan. It could be a retaliatory act of terrorism," he said.
Christian Liberation Front of Pakistan spokesman Shahbaz Bhatti said that Islamic extremists had been calling for Jihad in the town since the US-led air strikes began against the Taliban in Afghanistan on October 7. "A few days before this incident an application was made to the police in Bahawalpur for more security at this church but nothing was done. We demand more security for the minorities all over the country," he said. He said he believed the gunmen belonged either to Sipah-e-Sahaba, Jaish-e-Muhammad or Harakat-ul-Mujahideen.