ROME — Pope Francis on Sunday said he felt great pain over two recent bomb attacks outside Christian churches in Pakistan, and asserted that the world is “trying to hide” anti-Christian persecution.
“These are Christian churches. Christians are persecuted, our brothers spill their blood simply because they are Christians,” the pontiff said after his regular Sunday Angelus address.
“I pray to the Lord that the persecution against Christians, that the world is trying to hide, comes to an end. Let there be peace!” Francis said.
Pope Francis has repeatedly spoken against attacks on Christians around the world. Last February, while condemning the beheading of 21 Egyptian Copts by militants of the Islamic State in Libya, the pontiff said “the blood of our Christian brothers and sisters is a testimony which cries out to be heard.”
“It makes no difference whether they be Catholics, Orthodox, Copts, or Protestants,” he said. “The martyrs belong to all Christians.”
Pakistani Taliban suicide bombers exploded themselves near two churches — one Catholic, one Protestant — in the eastern city of Lahore on Sunday as worshippers were gathered inside, killing 14 people and injuring 80, officials said, in the latest attack against religious minorities in the increasingly fractured country.
In the tense aftermath, angry mobs lashed out at people they suspected of involvement in the attacks — including one person who was burned to death — and Christian crowds set fire to cars in a show of defiance in the country’s second largest city and the prime minister’s seat of power.
Life in Pakistan is increasingly fraught with danger for religious minorities, especially Christians. They have been targeted by extremist Sunni Muslim militants who object to their faith.
Reuters reported that according to witnesses, the quick action of a security guard prevented many more deaths.
“I was sitting at a shop near the church when a blast jolted the area. I rushed towards the spot and saw the security guard scuffle with a man who was trying to enter the church, after failing, he blew himself up,” Amir Masih said.
The pope said he was praying for the victims and their families.
The attacks came only a week after the three major splinter Taliban groups in Pakistan announced they were joining forces again under the name of Teherik-i-Taliban.
While claiming responsibility over the bombings, a spokesman for the terrorist organization Ehsanullah Ehsan warned that the attacks will continue until Sharia law is implemented in the country.
Lahore is normally regarded as a safe city for Pakistani minorities, but violence has escalated since the failure of the government’s peace talks with the Taliban in 2014.
There are an estimated 3 million Christians divided between Catholic and Protestants in Pakistan, representing less than 2 percent of the total population.
Catholic activist Valeria Martano, of the Community of Saint’Egidio, told the Italian news network Rai that members of minority groups in the country are being attacked daily, even though they are constitutionally protected.
Some of those attacks are a result of Pakistan’s blasphemy law, a hugely sensitive issue in this majority Muslim country, where even allegations can prompt mob violence.
Asia Bibi, a Catholic mother of five, was sentenced to death by the Lahore High Court for allegedly insulting the prophet Mohammed while fighting with a colleague over a bowl of water. She is on death row in Pakistan.
Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.