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Pakistan: Sectarian Killing Persists (Part 1)

  • Charles Recknagel

Pakistan faces the prospect of new rounds of violence between majority Sunni and minority Shiite Muslims as the Shiia next week (6 April) hold one of their most important annual religious observances. In this first part of a three-part series on continuing sectarian violence in Pakistan, RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel looks at a conflict which has taken more than 300 lives in recent years.

Lahore, Pakistan; 28 March 2001 (RFE/RL) -- It is not easy to find someone who will talk at the Lahore mosque where earlier this month three masked gunmen shot dead nine worshippers, including a 12-year-old boy.

The three policemen now stationed beside the mosque warn reporters away, saying interviewing local residents will stir up trouble. That is because the residents are still grieving for the victims, most of whom lived on the adjacent streets in this crowded, middle-class neighborhood.

But as people gather, one man says he will describe what happened:

"There were a couple of people with guns. They came and they started, indiscriminately started, shooting at the people praying. More than 10 people died on the spot and some died at the hospital and a lot of people are injured. [The victims] are all of this neighborhood, they usually came every day for prayer."

The crowd is tense because this is the latest incident in a continuing cycle of sectarian violence in Pakistan that has killed more than 300 people in recent years. The violence is carried out by extremists belonging to both the country's Sunni Muslim majority and its Shiite Muslim minority, which makes up about 20 percent of the population.

Police have not yet caught the gunmen who attacked the mosque and have named no suspects. But the assailants are popularly believed to be members of the armed wing of an extremist Shiite party, the Tehrik-e-Jafiriya-e-Pakistan, or TJP, the Movement for the Imposition of Shiite Law in Pakistan.

One reason to suspect the TJP is that the mosque victims included a local leader of an arch-rival Sunni party, whose members often have attacked Shiia. That is the Sipah-e-Sahaba-e-Pakistan , or SSP, the Guardians of the Friends of the Prophet.

If the TJP is in fact responsible, that would make the mosque attack another of those vengeance rampages by sectarian gunmen which, in the past two months alone, have killed 45 people. The spark for the latest spiral of violence was Pakistan's execution in February of Sunni extremist and SSP member Haq Nawaz, convicted for the 1990 murder of Iranian diplomat Ardeshir Sadegh Ganji in Lahore.

Now as the Shiia prepare next week to hold one of their most important annual religious observances -- Ashura -- Pakistan is bracing for the possibility of more trouble.

The government has issued a string of strongly worded pronouncements that it plans to crack down on anyone who uses the occasion to provoke violence. It says it is considering setting up military courts to try people who instigate or carry out sectarian killings and has ordered police to step up security for religious processions in the cities and countryside.

At the same time, moderate religious leaders on both sides have vowed to make no provocative speeches and to work together to keep tempers cool.

But even if the tense days ahead pass without incident, Pakistanis know the sectarian violence is almost certain to resume later.

One sign of how much of a part of Pakistan's life sectarian violence has become is the portraits of suspected assailants which police regularly run in newspapers. A current public notice offers rewards of up to $100,000 for information leading to the capture of a dozen men.

Catching the killers has proved difficult. Many of the Sunni suspects are believed to be hiding in Afghanistan, where they take refuge with the ruling Taliban militia, itself a radical Sunni Muslim group adamantly opposed to Shiism. The Pakistan government has presented the Taliban with a list of 120 names of men suspected of killing Shiia whom it wants extradited, but Taliban officials say they don't know where the men are.

Political analysts and journalists in Pakistan say the sectarian killings are the work of a small numbers of extremists on both sides. They say that most Sunni and Shiia live peacefully together and socialize easily, apart from marrying largely within their own communities.

But the extremists have been able to use violence to fan long-standing tensions over Shiite demands for greater minority rights. Also, while moderate Sunni leaders in recent years have been willing to discuss Shiite grievances, radical Sunni groups like the SSP have demanded the Pakistani government declare the Shiia non-Muslims.

Haider Javed Syed, a journalist with the Urdu-language daily "Aaj (Today)" in Lahore, says radicals on both sides have been able to build up their followings partly thanks to an explosive growth in the number of Pakistan's religious schools, or madrassas, during the last two decades.

Successive Pakistani governments have encouraged or tolerated the opening of new madrassas to compensate for shortages of private schools in Pakistan, where education is not compulsory. The madrassas, supported by religious foundations at home and abroad, offer students free tuition and board, which private schools do not.

Today there are an estimated 40,000 madrassas in Pakistan, compared with only 900 in 1971. Their curricula are outside the state's educational system and center on religious studies, with many emphasizing narrow interpretations of faith and little tolerance for variations. The graduation certificates that the schools issue are not recognized as qualifications for state jobs or employment in much of the private sector.

Journalist Javed Syed says that because the madrassa students have few employment prospects, they become easy recruits for extremist groups.

"According to some surveys, in 1985 there were some 32,000 to 40,000 people studying in madrassas. Now there are more than 100,000 persons studying there. They cannot do any sort of professional work because they are not trained for it. So there is nothing left for them to do but become part of these religious and sectarian disputes, because they can't do any other job."

Javed Syed says he himself comes from a family where Sunni and Shiia live easily together. His mother and father are Sunni but among the sons, three are Shiia and four Sunni. As for his sisters, four are Sunni and one Shiia.

That mix of Sunni and Shiia also shows up in the lists of dead after individual sectarian attacks. In a recent attack targeting Shiia in the town of Sheikhapour, 30 km from Lahore, 16 people died, including five Sunni.

But the killers, be they from the SSP or TJP, show no remorse for killing their own community members in their rampages, which often take the form of wild drive-by shootings with automatic weapons.

Javed Syed says the extremists' attitudes were well summed-up by three suspects in the Sheikhapour shooting who appeared in court recently. The judge asked them if they felt any guilt for killing Shiia and they said 'no.' Then the judge asked if they felt any remorse for also killing members of their own Sunni sect. The three answered with one voice: 'no.'

Their reason: The Sunni, they said, should not have been sitting with the Shiia.

(Part 2 of the three-part series on Pakistani sectarian violence looks at the roots of the conflict.)

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