KARACHI: Thousands of anti-Shiite protesters including demonstrators linked to Sunni extremists rallied in Pakistan’s Karachi Friday (Sep 11), sparking fears that rising tensions between the religious groups may unleash a new round of sectarian violence.
The rally follows a raft of blasphemy accusations against major Shiite leaders in Pakistan after a televised broadcast of an Ashura procession last month showed clerics and participants allegedly making disparaging remarks about historic Islamic figures.
Ashura commemorates the killing of the Prophet Mohammed’s grandson Hussein at the Battle of Karbala in 680 AD – the defining moment of the religion’s schism and the birth of Shiite Islam.
Friday’s demonstration saw thousands of protesters rally near the tomb of the country’s founder – Muhammad Ali Jinnah – where participants chanted “infidels” and “God is the greatest”.
“We will not tolerate any more defamation,” said Qari Usman from the Islamist Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam political party during a speech.
Pockets of demonstrators held banners of the extremist anti-Shiite group Sipah-e-Sahaba, which has been linked to the killing of hundreds of Shiites over the years.
Blasphemy is a hugely sensitive issue in conservative Pakistan where laws can carry the death penalty for anyone deemed to have insulted Islam or Islamic figures.
Even unproven allegations have led to mob lynchings and vigilante murders.
Sectarian violence has erupted in fits and bursts for decades in Pakistan, with homegrown anti-Shiite militant groups bombing shrines and targeting Ashura processions.
Thousands were killed in the previous decade sparking a fierce crackdown by security forces in 2015 which resulted in a dramatic drop in sectarian violence.
The crackdown culiminated in July 2015 when Malik Ishaq – the chief of the banned militant group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) – was killed in a firefight with police along with 13 fellow militants.
The shootout wiped out much of the top leadership of LeJ, a driving force in the violence targeting Shiites, who make up around 20 per cent of Pakistan’s 220 million population.
Karachi – Pakistan’s largest city which is also a major business and industrial hub – was once rife with political, sectarian, and ethnic militancy with thousands killed.
However a years-long operation by security forces starting in 2013 has brought a considerable lull in the violence – but scattered attacks still take place.