LAHORE, Pakistan – Pakistani Taliban suicide bombers exploded themselves near two churches in the eastern city of Lahore on Sunday as worshippers were gathered inside, killing 15 people, 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.
They are also discriminated against in the wider society where they can often only get menial jobs like garbage collection, and are frequently targets of blasphemy accusations.
The explosions occurred in quick succession in the Christian neighborhood of Youhana Abad at two churches while parishioners were celebrating Sunday morning services inside. The churches are about 600 meters (650 yards) apart.
At least 70 people were wounded, said Zahid Pervez, the provincial director general of health, who gave the death toll.
One unidentified witness told Pakistan's Geo television that the main gate to one of the churches targeted was closed so people were using a smaller gate.
"One bomber exploded himself near that gate, that created chaos and during the course there was another blast," he said.
In the aftermath of the blasts the mood quickly turned violent. Much of the country is on edge after years of militant violence including an attack on a Peshawar school in December that killed 150 people -- mostly students.
Local television footage showed an angry crowd beating a person they thought was connected to the attack, while others attacked buses in the city. The crowds burned to death one person they believed was involved in the attack and tried to lynch another, said Haider Ashraf, deputy inspector general for Lahore.
Two police who were protecting the churches were also killed in the explosions, which he confirmed were caused by suicide bombers.
A spokesman for the Punjab province government condemned the attacks but also said it was unfortunate that the mob had attacked suspects. He said authorities are reinforcing security at the 481 remaining churches across the city.
Militants appear to be targeting minorities more intensively recently, including attacks on a string of mosques belonging to members of the Shiite Muslim minority sect. In 2013, twin blasts at a church in Peshawar killed 85 people.
"There will be more of such attacks," warned Ahsanullah Ahsan, a spokesman for the Taliban faction that claimed responsibility for the assault, in a statement emailed to reporters.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has his power base in Lahore and his party, the Pakistan Muslim League-N, also runs the Punjab government, where his brother is chief minister. The provincial government has been accused in the past of not doing enough to protect religious minorities and reign in extremist groups based in the province who often whip up religious sentiment against minorities.