A suicide bomb attack on a church killed at least 55 people as parishioners left the building Sunday, officials said, in what is the first major attack on Pakistan's Christian community.
The rapidly-rising death toll reached at least 55 within hours of the blast, officials at the Lady Ready Hospital in Peshawar told NBC News.
"Between 500 to 600 worshippers were present in the church," Deputy Commissioner Zaheer ul Islam earlier told reporters in Peshawar. He said at least 40 people were confirmed dead.
In a statement, Prime Minister Muhammad Nawaz Sharif strongly condemned the bomb blast, expressing solidarity with the Christian community.
He said terrorists have no religion and that the targeting innocent people is against the teachings of Islam.
Christians set fire to tires in protest at the attack.
"There was no security, police were just standing by," a man cried outside the church.
"After the service ended, people started to come out and the suicide bomber rushed towards them," Najeeb Bogvi, a senior police officer in Peshawar told Reuters.
Christians make up about four percent of Pakistan's population of 180 million and tend to keep a low profile in a country where Islamist militants frequently bomb targets they see as heretical, including Christians and Shi'ites, Reuters reported.
In 2009, 40 houses and a church were set ablaze by a mob of 1,000 Muslims in the town of Gojra in Punjab province. At least seven Christians were burnt to death. The attacks were triggered by reports of the desecration of the Koran.
Copyright 2014 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.