At least 72 people, women and children among them, were killed and over 200 were injured when a suicide bomber struck the shrine of a 13th century Sufi saint in Sindh province, Pakistan on Feb. 16.
Archbishop Joseph Coutts of Karachi, head of the Pakistan Catholic bishops’ conference, has strongly condemned the attack on the shrine.
"It is sad that a Muslim shrine has been attacked in a Muslim country. We feel so helpless. The scourge of terrorism has spread like a cancer. It has long roots in our society," the archbishop said.
"The government or army alone cannot fight it alone. The whole nation should stand united, without discrimination of faith, use all peaceful methods and reject these terrorists," he told ucanews.com.
"Terrorists lie when they claim to target only government departments and spare public or religious places. Attacks on shrines is a wider problem emerging from sectarianism; terrorism has no borders," he said.
Father Qaiser Feroz, executive secretary of the Pakistani bishops' social communications commission, said "shrines are being targeted simply because they are crowded and people of all faiths visit them especially to listen to devotional songs. The religious fundamentalists only want bloodshed, there is no faith motivation."
It was the latest in a series of nationwide terrorist attacks over the last five days. The death toll, it is feared, is likely to go up due to the critical condition of many of the injured.
The bomb blast took place when the shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar was packed with large numbers of devotees watching a dhamal, a spiritual dance ritual which can transport performers and audience into a state of religious ecstasy.
"Preliminary investigation points to a suicide attack," Khadim Hussain Rind, a senior police official, told media in Jamshoro, the provincial capital. "A team of forensic experts have reached the shrine to examine the place," he said.
Rind confirmed the death of at least 72 people, including 20 children and nine women.
The so-called Islamic State, a global terrorist organization, has claimed responsibility for the attack, the group's affiliated news agency, AMAQ reported.
Islamic militant groups have carried out several terrorist attacks targeting Sufi followers. In July 2010, two suicide bombers blew themselves up at the shrine of an 11th century Sufi saint, Abul Hassan Ali Hajvery, in Lahore, killing 50 people and injuring 200 others.
In Sufism, a branch of Islamic mysticism, devotional songs and prayers emphasize total surrender to God. It has a history of over 1,000 years in South Asia.
Army vows revenge
General Qamar Javed Bajwa, chief of Pakistan's powerful military, vowed revenge and appealed to the nation to stay calm.
"Recent terrorist acts are being executed on the direction of hostile powers and from sanctuaries in Afghanistan. We shall defend and respond," Bajwa said in a media statement.
"Each drop of the nation's blood shall be revenged, and revenged immediately. No more restraint for anyone," Bajwa said in a statement.
Later, the army announced the closure of Pakistan's border with Afghanistan with immediate effect, citing security concerns.
The Pakistan army said it had dispatched a naval helicopter and a C-130 aircraft to airlift the injured to hospitals. "Army and ranger medical teams have reached the blast site. Air evacuation from Nawab Shah has started and the injured are being taken to Karachi and Hyderabad," the army's media wing said.
Prime minister condemns carnage
In a press statement shortly after the bombing, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif described the suicide attack as an assault on the progressive and inclusive future of Pakistan.
"The attack on the shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar represents an attack on the progressive, inclusive future of Pakistan; one where every man, women and child is entitled to life, liberty and property in the pursuit of happiness no matter their religion," Sharif said.
"The Sufi people predate Pakistan and formed an important part in the struggle for its formation. Any attack on them is a direct threat to Pakistan," he said.
"The past few days have been hard and my heart is with the victims. But we can't let these events divide or scare us. We must stand united in this struggle for Pakistani identity and universal humanity," Sharif added.
Earlier on Feb. 16, an army captain and two soldiers were killed when their convoy was hit by a roadside blast in Awaran district of Pakistan's restive but large province Balochistan.
In a third attack in northwestern Pakistan, four policemen were killed and another injured as their van came under fire late on Feb. 16, according to state media.
According to police, a mobile team from Dera town police station was refilling their van at a gas station when unidentified assailants opened fire and fled after killing four policemen including Assistant Sub Inspector Rehmatullah, two constables named Numan and Rashid and their driver, Irshad.
(This story has been updated with comments from Catholic Church officials)
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