ISLAMABAD – A Sunni militant group known for targeting rival Muslims has emerged as a dangerous new player in Pakistan, sending a pair of suicide bombers this week to detonate themselves inside a church in the deadliest ever attack against Pakistani Christians.
The brutal assault, which killed 85 worshippers during Sunday services, was the first time that a militant group has taken direct aim at Pakistan's tiny Christian community.
That points to a frightening evolution in the country's multifaceted violence — threatening a new wave of bloodshed, this time targeting non-Muslim religions, which account for barely 5 percent of Pakistan's mainly Sunni Muslim population of 180 million.
Already a nervous minority, Pakistan's Christians are among the poorest in the country, often living in squalid settlements tucked away in the country's sprawling cities.
The community has come under brutal attacks before. But in most cases, they were unorganized mob attacks by radical Muslims who burned down entire Christian neighborhoods, usually over a personal or property dispute that escalated into charges a Christian committed blasphemy against Islam, stirring up a mob. Pakistan's controversial blasphemy laws have also landed dozens of Christians in jail over flimsy charges that could get them death penalties.
Claiming responsibility for Sunday's bombing in the northwestern city of Peshawar, the group Jundallah gave the attack a political dimension, saying it targeted Christians to avenge the deaths of Muslims killed by U.S. drone strikes — painted among militants as part of a "Christian campaign" against Islam.
"This is a new dimension, a new direction to attack the Christian community at large," said Cecil Shane Chaudhry, acting executive director of the National Commission for Justice and Peace, an advocacy group established by Catholic Church.
In the past, militants have instead been focused on attacking Pakistan's minority Shiite and Ahmadi Muslims, seen by Sunni extremists as heretics. Now he said Christians have been added to their list.
"It definitely is something to be worried about," Chaudhry said.
Its emergence highlights the enormity of the problem facing Pakistan as the new government works out a policy against militants. A complex array of independent but semi-connected groups makes up the country's terrorist mix. Groups morph and diverge, often with divergent and even opposing goals, some acting out a radical vision of Islamic law, some angered in the war in neighboring Afghanistan, some shifting among those and other motives.
Jundullah found a home in Pakistan's tribal regions about three years ago, aligning itself with the toxic mix of up to 150 militant groups that inhabit the area, say analysts and former military officials. It has gone from relative obscurity, garnering only the occasional mention in jihadi publications, to a dangerous force, said Amir Rana, whose Pakistan Institute for the Study of Peace monitors militant groups here.
It claimed responsibility for the slaying of 11 climbers from Russia, China and the Ukraine in June and an attack on an intelligence office in southern Sindh province.
Rana described Jundullah as a cell of the larger Pakistani Taliban organization known as the Tehrik-e-Taliban, or TTP. He said there are about 11 such cells, each with different names and with diverse tasks. Others say the central command of the TTP fragmented long ago, and the various militant groups under its banner, while bound by ideology, differ in strategy and tactics.
The former police inspector general in Khyber Pukhtunkhwa, where Peshawar is the capital, said there is no cohesion among the insurgent groups, but they are loosely aligned with each other and with al-Qaida.
Galvanized by the brutality of Sunday's attack, Muslim and non-Muslim Pakistanis staged protests throughout the country. Politicians who have advocated unconditional peace talks with militants began to urge caution.
"A routine condemnation for this incident is just not enough," Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, who is in charge of security forces, told lawmakers Monday.
Still after nearly three months in power, the government remains vague about how to tackle the proliferation of militant groups. One military official told The Associated Press that it is still waiting for the government to give direction to the war on terror: Is it fight or talk?
He spoke on condition of anonymity because of the often adversarial relationship between Pakistan's military and its civilian governments.
In 2010, Pakistan's political parties refused to give their support to a military operation in North Waziristan, the headquarters of the militancy and a sanctuary for insurgents fighting U.S. and NATO troops next door in Afghanistan, according to militant expert Zahid Hussain, whose books plot the rise of militancy in Pakistan.
In the murky world of militancy, Jundullah is a particularly difficult organization to fathom.
There are three separate groups in Pakistan named Jundullah, Arabic for "army of God."
One Jundullah group is mostly Iranian Sunnis, mainly from the ethnic Baluchi community, operating from Pakistan's Baluchistan province and trying to overthrow the Shiite dominated government in neighboring Iran. A second is headquartered in Pakistan's southern Arabian Sea port city of Karachi and has no affiliation to the Iranian Jundullah. It has taken responsibility for target killings, often of military officials as well as minority Shiites.
The third Jundullah, which took responsibility for the church attack, has some members who — while not Iranian — were initially in the Iranian group.
While united in their loathing for Shiites, all three groups are unconnected and operate independently, say analysts who have been following the organizations.
Ahmed Marwat, the spokesman and senior commander of the Jundullah group that claimed responsibility for the church bombing, offered some insights into the group's origins.
His hatred of Shiites originally drew him to the Iranian group of Sunni militants hiding out in Baluchistan province. He ended up in an Iranian jail. In 2009, two years after his release, he cobbled together his own anti-Shiite Jundullah group and lined up beside Pakistan's Tehrik-e-Taliban.
Marwat's Jundullah is believed to count among its members some foreign, al- Qaida linked fighters. Marwat claims that the head of his organization is a 35-year-old American, Ahmad Marwan. U.S. officials, contacted by the AP, did not respond to requests for information about Marwan.
Despite differences among the militants, a former military point-man for the tribal regions, retired Brigadier Mahmood Shah, said their propensity for violence knows no bounds.
"For them nothing is sacred. They have attacked a funeral, a marriage party. They have attacked mosques," he said. "The Christian community in Peshawar is the poorest. It was a horrific incident."
Associated Press writers Rebecca Santana in Islamabad and Ishtiaq Mahsud in Dera Ismail Khan, Pakistan, contributed to this report
Kathy Gannon is special regional correspondent for Pakistan and Afghanistan and can be followed at http://www.twitter.com/kathygannon