Scottish minister's family hit by Peshawar church bomb

The Reverend Aftab Gohar lost several members of his family in a deadly blast in Peshawar on Sunday. Aleem Maqbool reports

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The Reverend Aftab Gohar travelled from his parish in Scotland, visiting his old family church in Pakistan for the first time since the attack on 22 September.

"This is where I used to stand with my friends after the service," he says in one corner of the courtyard. "You can see how close it is to where the bomber was."

He points to a place a short distance away where the paving is damaged. It is where one of two suicide bombers blew themselves up.

It happened shortly after Sunday service at the church in the centre of Peshawar as the worshippers - around 500 men, women and children - were gathering in the courtyard to eat together.

Deadly blast

"My mother must have been about here," says Mr Gohar. "My nephew and niece might have been coming down the steps from the Sunday school."

The Sunday school building is now peppered with dozens of deep marks caused by the ball bearings that were packed into the explosives, meant to cause the maximum number of casualties.

clergymen with security Clergymen leading a service to remember the dead had to be protected by armed guards
A memorial service for the scores of people killed in the attack Large numbers of Christians attended the memorial service for the scores of people killed in the attack
A man lays a wreath close to the spot where the bombers struck, 27 September 2013. A man lays a wreath near the spot where the bombers struck
Reverend Gohar speaks to members of the congregation Mr Gohar with members of the Peshawar congregation

Mr Gohar heard the news as he was preparing to lead his own service in Grangemouth. "It was so shocking when I received a text message to say there was a blast at All Saints' Church in Peshawar," he says.

"This was my family church, it was where I was baptised, it was where my parents were baptised and where they married. All my family in Pakistan still attended it."

Start Quote

Dozens of coffins were lined up, surrounded by wailing mothers and sisters. My mind just froze. I had a microphone in one hand and a camera in another, but I wasn't able to focus. ”

End Quote

Mr Gohar tried to contact family members but could not reach them. Eventually he managed to get hold of a family friend who told him one of his uncles had died and that his young niece and nephew were injured.

"Finally I got through and was able to speak to my mother. All she kept repeating was, 'My stomach hurts so much, it hurts so much'." Mr Gohar said he made the decision that he did not want to let down his congregation and so led the service.

Only afterwards did he hear that his 79-year-old mother had died, as had his 11-year-old nephew, his nine-year-old niece, two uncles, three cousins, two of his closest friends and many other friends and relatives. Others were injured.

He made arrangements to fly to Pakistan as soon as possible, and arrived to find the community of his birth traumatised and torn apart.

"It's such a shock. It feels like there is nothing left," he says. "We can't even visit our next-door neighbours because we are dealing with our tragedies and they are dealing with their tragedies and there is no time.

Packed ward

"There were funerals to arrange, and there are people who are injured that we have to visit."

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Ansar Gohar

My son was a brilliant student. He dreamed of being a pilot”

End Quote Ansar Gohar Brother

At Lady Reading Hospital in Peshawar, Mr Gohar visits a nephew with injuries to his head and limbs. Ball bearings have yet to be removed.

In a neighbouring bed lies the clergyman's older brother. The ward is heaving with other Christians injured in the church attack. Mr Gohar braces himself to visit his sister-in-law, who has just been moved out of the intensive care unit. She does not yet know that her son and daughter were killed.

"Doctors have advised me not to tell her yet because her condition is too fragile," says her husband, Ansar, younger brother of the clergyman, as he waits outside his wife's room.

He tells how, the day before the bombing, his nine-year-old daughter had written the words "I love you, mummy" over and over again on pieces of paper and displayed them around her bedroom.

Other relatives had said she had announced to her mother what shoes she was going to wear to church that day, and how her body was identified by those very shoes.

"My son was a brilliant student, he dreamed of being a pilot," says Ansar. "My daughter was so talkative and happy, but now everything has gone. I have nothing without them."

Living in fear

Aftab Gohar moved to the UK in 2008, having studied in Edinburgh years earlier.

He says it was only after 2001 that the Christian community in Peshawar started to feel fearful.

"Before that, we had very good relations with the Muslim community. We still do in this area, mostly," Mr Gohar says. "But there started to be tension in other places and fundamentalism started to get worse. We began to worry, but we never thought something like this could happen."

Mr Gohar describes how supportive his parishioners back in Scotland have been, but wonders how alien the problems of Christians in Pakistan must seem.

He will return to Grangemouth soon, but fears for his family and friends.

"I wonder what is left for them here," he says. "Our church has been standing for 130 years. It has witnessed so much. It is centre to so many people's lives.

"When I used to asked my mother how she was, she used to tell me, 'I'm fine, I managed to go to church today'. That was her joy. Now people are afraid even to gather together."

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