ISLAMABAD – Plagued by mounting attacks by Islamist militants loyal to al Qaeda, Pakistan now faces a second wave of violence as its minority Shi’ite Muslims prepare for their annual mourning period.
The 40-day Shi’ite mourning period, expected to begin on Thursday, has become a lightning rod for sectarian violence and comes as the country is still reeling from the assassination of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto in a gun and bomb attack.
The Interior Ministry said 35 districts in the country had been declared “sensitive” and all security agencies had been put on high alert to avert sectarian violence during the mourning period, known as Moharram.
“We appeal to all citizens to exercise vigilance and extend full cooperation to the security agencies,” said ministry spokesman Javed Iqbal Cheema.
Moharram marks the death anniversary of Imam Hussein, a grandson of the Prophet Mohammad, who was killed in a battle with political rival, Yazid, in A.D. 680 in the Iraqi city of Kerbala.
The climax of Moharram is the 10th day, known as Ashura, when worshippers flog themselves with steel-tipped flails or slash their bodies with knives to express solidarity with Hussein.
Moharram processions have come under attack by Sunni sectarian militants in recent years.
Pakistan saw a surge of religious violence in the 1980s with the emergence of militant groups, most of them Sunni, funded by the United States and Saudi Arabia to fight Soviet forces in Afghanistan and Shi’ite radical groups following the success of the 1979 Islamic revolution in majority Shi’ite Iran.
While ordinary Sunni and Shi’ite Pakistanis live side-by-side, radicals from the two sects have inflicted a bloody toll in tit-for-tat assassinations and bomb attacks since then.
Last year, a suicide bomber blew himself up among policemen escorting a Moharram procession in the northwestern city of Peshawar, killing 11 people, most of them policemen.
In 2006, about 40 people were killed in suicide attack on an Ashura procession in the town of Hangu.
The attacks were blamed on Sunni sectarian militants, many of whom established links with al Qaeda after President Pervez Musharraf forged a security alliance with the United States following the September 11 attacks in 2001.
The Interior Ministry is particularly worried about attacks in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) on the Afghan border, where militants are active.
“There is a two-fold threat in NWFP where sectarian tension as well as the militant threat exists,” Cheema said.
Shi’ite leaders said they were ready to cooperate with the government to ensure security but opposed any move to restrict their processions.
“Concern about terrorist attacks cannot be overlooked,” Sajid Ali Naqvi, a senior Shi’ite cleric and a vice president of country’s main Islamic party alliance said.
“But we have very good relations with all sects. We can use these contacts and are ready to cooperate with the government to ensure security. But any restriction on our mourning is unacceptable.”
Shi’ites make up about 15 percent of Pakistan’s 160 million people. The overwhelming majority of the rest are Sunni Muslim.
Differences between Sunnis and Shi’ites date back to the earliest days of Islam over the succession of the Prophet Mohammad after his death in A.D. 632.
Sunnis, who form a majority of Muslims worldwide, regard Abu Bakr, one of Mohammad’s companions, as his successor, while Shi’ites revere Ali, the prophet’s son-in-law and cousin. Ali was also the father of Imam Hussein.
Sunnis also revere Hussein but they celebrate Moharram less fervently than Shi’ites.