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Pope Francis urges Pakistani government to protect Christians

Pakistani Christian women mourn during the funeral service of Sahil Pervez who was killed in the suicide bombing in Lahore (AP)

Pope Francis denounced the “vile and senseless” bombing in a park in Pakistan targeting Christian families celebrating Easter and pressed for protection for religious minorities in the largely Muslim nation.

“Easter Sunday was bloodied by an abominable attack that massacred so many innocent people, for the most part families of the Christian minority, especially women and children, gathered in a public park to joyfully pass the Easter holiday,” Francis told the faithful in St Peter’s Square on Easter Monday.

Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, a breakaway Taliban faction that supports ISIS, claimed responsibility and said it specifically targeted Christians.

But most of those killed were Muslims who also had been in the popular park for the holiday. Many women and children were among the victims, and dozens of families held tearful funerals on Monday for their slain relatives. At least 300 people were wounded.

Pope Francis appealed to the government of Pakistan to take steps to ensure the safety of the country’s Christians and other minorities.

He appealed to “the civil authorities and all community leaders in that nation to do everything possible to ensure the security and serenity of the population, particularly the most vulnerable religious minorities.”

Pope Francis has repeatedly spoken passionately about the suffering of Christians in the Middle East, Africa and Asia targeted by Islamic extremists. Last week, in a Good Friday service, he criticised what he called “cowardly silence” toward the persecution and killing of Christians.

On Monday Francis pointedly called for improved security for religious minorities and asked those present to pray for the victims.

As he has done frequently after deadly extremists attacks in Europe and elsewhere in recent months, the Pope insisted that “violence and murderous hate lead only to sorrow and destruction.” Instead, “respect and brotherhood are the only path to achieve peace.”

The Pontiff invited prayers for an end to the actions of “violent persons, who sow terror and death.”

On Tuesday, Cardinal Vincent Nichols described the bombing in Lahore as “despicable and utterly contemptible”. Writing on Twitter, the Archbishop of Westminster added that “evil will never defeat goodness”.

Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, Kentucky, president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, has expressed “tremendous sorrow” about the attacks.

“Even as Christians celebrated the peace of the risen Lord, they became victims of the most atrocious violence,” Archbishop Kurtz said in a letter to Archbishop Joseph Coutts, president of the Pakistan Catholic Bishops’ Conference.

“There are simply no words that can fully capture the immeasurable horror of seeing a children’s playground turned into a place of slaughter.”

In a televised address broadcast on Monday, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif vowed to hunt down and defeat the militants.

“We will not allow them to play with the lives of the people of Pakistan,” Sharif said. “This is our resolve. This is the resolve of the 200 million people of Pakistan.”