India's Punjab cabinet minister and former cricketer Navjot Singh Sidhu (4th left) walks after entering Pakistan from India at the border crossing in Wagah on Nov. 27. Sidhu arrived in Pakistan to attend the groundbreaking ceremony of the Kartarpur Corridor in Nankana Sahib scheduled for Nov. 28. (Photo by Arif Ali/AFP)
Pakistan on Nov. 28 officially launched a visa-free road link for Sikh pilgrims from India to visit a famous shrine in the neighboring nation, a surprise development that is being hailed by minority groups.
Prime Minister Imran Khan attended the opening ceremony of the Kartarpur (Village of God) route across the India-Pakistan border, three kilometers from Gurdaspur in Punjab.
The route provides direct access to the Gurdwara Darbar Sahib Kartarpur by the River Ravi, close to the border. Most Indian pilgrims use Delhi Transport Corp (DTC), which offers a service between Delhi and Lahore. Former Indian prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee launched the service in March 1999.
The shrine is important to Sikhs because it is built on an historic site where Guru Nanak established a Sikh community in the wake of his missionary travels.
The gurdwara, which translates as "door to the guru" and refers to a place of worship for Sikhs, houses a samadhi, or funerary monument, as well as the grave of the founder of Sikhism and the first guru among Sikhs.
Guru Nanak spent the last 18 years of his life in the first half of the 16th century residing at the famous shrine.
Both Muslims and Sikhs revere the guru, and both performed rituals associated with their respective faiths to commemorate his passing.
Sikh devotees had long demanded that both countries collaborate to build a corridor linking the shrine with Dera Baba Nanak, a city in Gurdaspur district of India's Punjab state.
Until Nov. 28, they had to travel by a longer route via the Wagah border crossing.
India often accuses Pakistan of supporting an insurgency in the Indian part of Kashmir, an allegation Pakistan has consistently denied.
India also accuses Pakistan of supporting "a freedom struggle" in Indian Kashmir against Indian administration. Some groups have taken up arms in an effort to separate Kashmir from India.
The conflict dates back to 1947 when India and Pakistan became separate states after British rule ended. Citizens from both sides did not need a visa until June 1952.
Both countries claim Kashmir in full and have fought at least three wars and countless skirmishes over it. Calls to end violence and stress the importance of dialogue have come from various leaders, including church officials.
Human rights activists in Pakistan welcomed the opening of the new corridor as a major development in India-Pakistan peace talks after a hiatus of five years.
"We have 135 historical Sikh venues in our country, but the markets and roads around them are in a dilapidated state," Kalyan Singh Kalyan, a Sikh professor in Lahore, told ucanews.com.
"Our national economy can greatly benefit from tourism. Sikh pilgrims must be given visa upon arrival in Pakistan," he said.
"The state must protect minorities by making better legislation and adopting a better attitude," he added.
Around 52,000 Sikhs live in Pakistan today, mostly in the country's restive northwest. The area has been rocked by an Islamist insurgency for more than a decade, forcing many to leave their homes in tribal areas along the Afghan border for the city of Peshawar.
There, they have set up businesses and often work as traders, their men instantly recognizable by the distinctive untrimmed beards and high turbans that distinguish them from their Muslim counterparts.
This March, Pakistan became the first country in the word to introduce specific legislation for the registration of Sikh marriages — another move heartily welcomed by Sikhs.
But in May unknown attackers shot dead veteran Sikh peace activist Charanjeet Singh in Peshawar, the capital of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. The slain activist regularly conducted interfaith programs and hosted iftar (evening) meals for Muslims during the fasting month of Ramadan.
In 2016, Minority Affairs Minister Sardar Soran Singh, the first Sikh to sit in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa assembly, was killed in front of his home in Bacha Killay village in mountainous Buner district.
Ashir Nazir, the Catholic executive secretary of the United Religions Initiative Pakistan, described the new "peace corridor" as a big leap for interfaith harmony.
"It is a beautiful day today. We are making history," he said.
"This shrine is visited by both Muslims and Sikhs. The new corridor will strengthen their friendship. Pakistan needs more religious freedom."
Farooq Tariq, a Muslim spokesman for Pakistan's left-wing Awami Workers Party, disagreed. He said the visa-free road is nothing but a propaganda campaign.
"What a shame there's only one bus a day, two flights a week and four days of train travel allowed between these two nuclear-armed nations of over a billion people," he said.
"Opening another border crossing is just a political gimmick," he added.
"The whole process of getting a [Pakistan or Indian travel] visa is a major challenge. All efforts are made to follow you once you are in either country. Even national sports teams are not allowed visas. We demand further interaction between people [from both sides] and more trade routes."