VATICAN CITY, OCT. 28, 2001 ( John Paul II condemned the attack by gunmen at a Catholic church in Bahawalpur, Pakistan, which left 16 dead today.

As soon as he heard the news, the Holy Father sent a telegram to Archbishop Alessandro D´Errico, apostolic nuncio in Pakistan, to express his "absolute condemnation of this further tragic act of intolerance."

In the message sent by Cardinal Angelo Sodano, Vatican secretary of state, the Pope expresses his "heartfelt condolences to the families of the victims whom he commends to the Lord. He expresses his prayerful closeness to all affected by this evil act and, as a pledge of comfort and strength, he invokes upon the entire community the blessings of Almighty God."

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf condemned this "terrorist attack," which said aims "to create division in Pakistan, where Christians and Muslims always lived in peace and mutual respect."

"I am profoundly saddened and my sympathy goes to the victims and their families," he said in a statement. He said the perpetrators will be "pursued and brought to justice."

Six assailants arrived at the church on motorcycles and fired at the congregation with AK47 assault rifles, the police reported.

No one has claimed responsibility for the attack. Arif Ikram, chief of police of Bahawalpur, said, "One of the hypotheses is that it is in reprisal for the U.S. attacks on Afghanistan, but it could also be simply a terrorist act."

The church, located in the residential neighborhood of Gulzar e Sadiq, is Catholic, though it is also used by Protestants.

Many of the victims were Protestants. Recently there was a change in the schedule of services, and it was the Protestants´ turn to use the building, explained Mother Anna Bajshi, the superior of a convent in Bahawalpur.

Among the victims was the Protestant pastor and a policeman stationed outside the church who, according to eyewitnesses, was asleep. Some 150 faithful were about to leave the church when the first shots were fired, a Church spokesman in Punjab, Azhar Rashid, explained.

According to Rashid, the assailants all wore beards, which leads to the belief that they belonged to a radical extremist group.

Despite President Musharraf´s comments about interreligious relations, tension between the population and the small Christian community of Bahawalpur is not new. In 1988, an American nun was killed in the garden of her house.

Local Christians have felt especially vulnerable since the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States. Recently, they asked the authorities for police protection for their church.

In response, a policeman was posted outside the church during religious services -- a measure the faithful regarded as insufficient.

Christians account for 2% of Pakistan´s 150 million people.