Behawalpur, Pakistan Gunmen with "bags of guns and bullets" stormed into a Christian church in Pakistan during Sunday services and sprayed the congregation with gunfire, killing the minister and 15 others, police and survivors said.
The attack the bloodiest in memory against the country's small Christian community took place during a Protestant service held at St. Dominic's Roman Catholic Church in the center of Behawalpur, a city in Pakistan's southern Punjab province.
It was not clear if the attack was related to recent unrest over U.S.-led airstrikes on Afghanistan.
During the church shooting, survivors said worshippers tried to flee or hide under pews to escape an indiscriminate hail of automatic weapons fire that left the gray stone building pocked with bullet holes.
"Some of them lay down. Some begged for mercy. They didn't listen," said Ali Shah, a man in his early 20s who was in the front pew when the four masked gunmen burst in. He was one of five people being treated for bullet wounds at the city hospital Sunday afternoon.
The Rev. Rocus Patras, parish priest at St. Dominic's, said that at the time of the shooting, a Protestant congregation that lacks its own building was worshipping at the Catholic church as it has for 30 years.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility, but intelligence officials said members of a banned Islamic group were under suspicion. U.S. attacks on neighboring Afghanistan have enraged many Pakistani Muslims.
"Whenever something happens with America, they attack Christian churches," Patras said.
Authorities in Pakistan's four provinces ordered increased security at Christian churches. In Islamabad, where police commandos with automatic weapons guarded church gates Sunday afternoon, President Gen. Pervez Musharraf condemned the loss of "16 innocent and precious lives."
"The method used and the inhuman tactics employed clearly indicate involvement of trained terrorists of organizations bent on creating discord and disharmony in Pakistan," Musharraf said in a written statement.
Patras, the Catholic priest, was in his rectory preparing for his own service two hours later when he heard gunfire and went outside. "I took these children, these little children, and ran. We jumped over the wall. It was like bombs were going off," he said. "After that, I went back to the church and saw crying and blood and people dying."
He added: "They had whole bags of weapons and bullets."
Behawalpur Police Chief Haris Ikram said one of the dead was a Muslim police officer who was guarding the church gate when he was shot.