LAHORE - In another gruesome attack on minorities in Pakistan, terrorists on Sunday targeted the Christian community in Lahore, killing at least 15 people in suicide hits on two different churches within a radius of 500 metres in Youhannabad.

The incident, which also left 78 people injured, sparked violent protests, resulting in lynching of two suspected militants and damage to infrastructure. For the first time the Christian community reacted violently to an act of brutality.

It all happened when Christians were busy worshiping at 11:15am in one of the most notable areas for the minority community in Asia.

Two suicide bombers exploded themselves when they met resistance at the entrance of the two main churches – St John Church of Youhannabad and Christ of Pakistan Church – considered to be the biggest churches for the Christians in the country.

The terrorists, said to be four in number, reached the main gates of the churches and tried to make their way into the building when the prayers were about to end. First, they opened fire on the security guards and people around and then exploded themselves on failure to enter into the churches.

Two suspected terrorists, eye-witnesses said, ran back to Ferozepur Road when they saw resistance from the security guards of St John Church. They were captured by the locals, given a thrashing and then set ablaze on Ferozepur Road.

Amir, an eyewitness, told this reporter that an attacker wearing black coat and sky-blue shirt approached the main entrance and asked the guards deputed there to let him enter the Christ Church. He said the guards asked him for body search on which he resisted and opened fire. “He denied body search, opened fire and then exploded himself,” said Amir.

The eyewitness further said that three police constables, who were enjoying the cricket match at a shop in front of the church at that time, were unaware of the matter. He further said that when a constable came there, the attacker killed him too.

Koko, another eyewitness, said that the attacker who targeted St John Church was wearing black shalwar and was clean-shaven. “The security guards stopped them at the gate but one of the three attackers exploded himself, and two others quickly ran back to Ferozepur Road,” said Koko, a tailor who works at a shop in front of St John Church. He said the people took the running terrorists into their custody and later tortured them to death and set their bodies on fire.

The suicide attacks took place outside both churches in 5 to 10 minutes apart. A security guard namely Akash, 28, died on the spot and another security guard James Masih succumbed to injuries at a hospital, while Rashid, head constable deputed outside Christ of Pakistan Church, lost his life when a suicide bomber who was holding a pistol opened fire on him.

Christians, most of them women and children, were busy offering prayers in the churches, and mostly remained safe. About 18 security guards – six security guards of Christ Church of Pakistan and 12 of St John Church – got severely injured and one of them, Adnan, was said to be in critical condition at Lahore General Hospital. Most of the victims were the people who were passing by the churches at that time or were the people who were busy working at their shops near the sites.

Rescue teams reached the spots and shifted the injured to Lahore General Hospital. Youhannabad went into mourning after the incident.

This is the second deadly attack on churches after two suicide attacks on Al-Saints Church in Peshawar in September 2013. However, it is the first time in the country’s history that Christians reacted violently. They took two suspects, tortured them to death and then set them on fire exactly before the main gate of Youhannabad neighbourhood at Ferozepur Road.

Around 540,000 Christians live in the area. The incident triggered anger among thousands of people who came out on the streets. The protesters, who were thousands in number, majority of them youth, blocked the main Ferozepur Road and started attacking private and public property. They were holding sticks and shouting against the government. They were also chanting slogans against the terrorists.

Not only Metro Bus Service but other transportation was also suspended at Ferozepur Road. The commuters faced huge problems as the protesters started attacking buses, cars and bikes. They also damaged Metro buses and a Metro Station. Fear gripped the whole area.

Police contingents could not reach the blasts sites for quite some time as the violent protesters did not allow them to get closer. However, media was given access to the sites but partially.

The Punjab government has announced one-day mourning on March 16 (today) over the tragedy.

Agencies add: Doctor Mohammad Saeed Sohbin, medical superintendent of the General Hospital, told AFP: “We received 14 dead bodies and 70 injured,” adding that the figure did not include the suspected militants who were lynched or the bombers.

Eyewitness Jacob David said people jumped out of the church window to save their lives. “These were huge blasts, one after another. Everyone started running here and there, some people jumped outside after breaking the window,” the 55-year-old told AFP.

“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,” said witness Amir Masih.

“I saw his body parts flying through the air,” he told Reuters.

Protesters also smashed shops and attacked vehicles. Police and several politicians were chased from the scene, residents said.

Police spokeswoman Nabila Ghazanfar said two policemen guarding the churches were among those killed in the attacks, while two people were beaten to death by protesters who took to the streets after the blasts.

An AFP photographer saw the bodies of the two suspected militants on fire after the beatings. It was not clear whether they were still alive at the time.

The Pakistani Taliban’s Jamaat-ul-Ahrar faction described the blasts as suicide attacks and vowed to continue their campaign.

Christians, who make up around two percent of Pakistan’s population of 180 million, have been targeted by attacks and riots in recent years.

The thousands of Christian protesters who clashed with police on Sunday attacked their cars with stones and sticks, as women wept and beat their heads and chests.

The protesters, some wearing crosses round their necks, later turned on the city’s bus rapid transit system - a signature project of the ruling PML-N party of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

Zaeem Qadri, a spokesman for the provincial government, said efforts were made to stop the rioting but emotions were very high because their churches have been attacked.

Christians also took to the streets in other cities, including Karachi, where around 200 protesters blocked a main road and burnt tyres. There were also demonstrations in Peshawar, Multan and Quetta.

Sunday’s attack was the first by the Taliban since three of their major factions said on Thursday they had reunited.

The military has stepped up its fight against militants since Taliban gunmen massacred more than 150 people, most of them children, at a school in Peshawar in December.

A moratorium on executions in terror cases was lifted and the constitution amended to set up military courts for the speedy trial of terrorism cases. Later, the death penalty was reinstated for all capital cases.

EU stands by Pakistan

EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini urged action on the attacks and groups “preaching hate”, saying the bloc stood with Pakistan in its anti-terrorism fight and with religious minorities.

“Freedom of religion or belief is a central tenet of democratic societies,” she said in a statement.