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Pakistani Christians call for peaceful Muharram

The holy month has been plagued with sectarian violence since the country's Islamization in the eighties

Pakistani Christians call for peaceful Muharram

Pastor Shahid P. Meraj leads a delegation of Christians at Karbala Gamay Shah, a Shia place of worship in Lahore, Pakistan, on Aug. 4. (Photo: Kamran Chaudhry/UCA News)

A delegation of Anglican priests visited a Shia place of worship in Lahore on Aug. 4 to send a clear message against sectarian violence ahead of Muharram, the first month in the Islamic lunar calendar.

“We reject hate … Shia, Sunni, Christians are brothers,” they chanted along with activists of Rawadari Tehreek (movement for tolerance) at Karbala Gamay Shah, the oldest imambargah (congregation hall for Shia ceremonies) in the city.

Members of the Shia community showered rose petals on the delegation and offered them refreshments.

This year the delegation was led by Pastor Shahid P. Meraj, dean of the Anglican Cathedral Church of the Resurrection in Lahore, and had six pastors in it. They prayed at the graves of Irani Shia scholars and locals buried behind the imambargah.

Pastor Meraj said both Christians and Muslims pray to the same God. “The blood of Imam Husayn and Christ flowing from Karbala and Calvary brings freedom from injustice. Together we remember their sacrifice for humanity,” he said.

“We demand foolproof security for the Muharram mourners and zero tolerance for terrorists. The Shia community has been targeted because of their faith,” said Samson Salamat, a Christian who founded Rawadari Tehreek.

We are promoting tolerance in the holy month using social media

The organization has been leading interfaith solidarity tours to Karbala Gamay Shah since 2016.

“We are promoting tolerance in the holy month using social media. Unfortunately, Muharram has been plagued with sectarian violence since Islamization in the eighties,” Salamat said.

On Aug. 1, Sunni activists of Sargodha filed a blasphemy case against Shoaib Raza, a Shia man, for sharing a video purportedly insulting the Prophet Muhammad’s companions on his Facebook page. Raza was arrested at a market the same day.

Shias, who make up 15 percent of Pakistan’s 220 million people, commemorate the seventh-century massacre of Prophet Muhammad’s grandson Imam Husayn and his family and friends at the battle of Karbala in Iraq for refusing to pledge allegiance to Muslim ruler Yazid ibn Muawiya.

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They blame certain Islamic figures for events that led to the Karbala tragedy but the same people are revered by Sunnis for being companions of Prophet Muhammad.

The commemorations during the holy month often bring sectarian violence.

This year, too, a large posse of 15,000 police personnel and other officials will be deployed at the 22 imambargahs, 1,190 majalis (gatherings) and 235 mourning processions be held in the city of Lahore.

The Shia Ulema Council (SUC) has accused district authorities of imposing restrictions on Muharram processions and majalis while also arresting their ulemas (scholars).

“Deputy commissioners in many areas have cut short mourning processions and reduced the time of majalis,” claimed Sibtain Haider Sabzwari, president of the SUC in Punjab, during a press conference at Lahore Press Club on Aug. 3.

He threatened to turn the mourning processions into sit-ins on the streets of Lahore if the arrested persons were not released and the restrictions were not lifted.

In July 2020, the Punjab Assembly passed a bill that makes desecration of Islam, its prophets, holy books, family and companions of Prophet Muhammad, as well as promoting sectarianism in any form, punishable with a maximum five-year jail term and a fine of up to 500,000 rupees (US$3,090).

The bill was widely criticized by state ministers and human rights activists who warned that such trends would fan sectarianism and religious extremism.

In 2011, seven people were killed in another blast at Karbala Gamay Shah during Ashura

Around 200 persons were booked on charges of blasphemy last year and nearly 70 percent belonged to the Shia sect, according to the Lahore-based Centre for Social Justice. The others were Ahmadis (20 percent), Sunnis (5 percent), Christians (3.5 percent) and Hindus (1 percent).

Karbala Gamay Shah witnessed terror attacks in 2010 and 2011.

Three bombs exploded during a procession in 2010. “There was panic everywhere. We closed the gate immediately. Commuters wanted to rush inside. Those locked inside were dying to reach their family members and friends outside. It was a big challenge,” Manzoor Hussain, a guard deployed to protect Shia mourners, told UCA News.

Hussain opened the gates 45 minutes after the blasts when police cleared the area. Thirty-eight were killed and more than 250 injured in the incident.

In 2011, seven people were killed in another blast at Karbala Gamay Shah during Ashura or the 10-day mourning period marked annually by the sect during the holy month of Muharram.

Hussain is one of the three guards normally deployed at the congregation hall where all the Ashura processions of Lahore end.

About 30 volunteers have been assigned to protect it during Muharram this year, starting on Aug. 9.

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