LAHORE, Pakistan, Dec. 10 (UPI Next) -- The Muslim holy month of Muharram, which roughly coincided with November, brought fear to Pakistan after sectarian violence claimed at least 11 lives and left 70 people injured across the country, the Punjab chief minister's office said.
Clashes between Sunni and Shiite Muslims erupted Nov. 15 in Rawalpindi, the seat of Pakistan's military, in Punjab province. They later spread to other parts of the country, including the cities of Multan, Chishtian, Kohat and Hangu.
Rioters burned shops, brandished arms, made hate speeches, hurled threats and distributed pamphlets containing hate material.
Local media reported the fighting began at a Rawalpindi seminary after a Sunni prayer leader made an inflammatory speech against Shiites in his Friday sermon Nov. 15. Each side blames the other for the breakout of violence.
Allama Mazhar Abbas Alvi, president of the Punjab chapter of the Shia Ulema Council of Pakistan, told UPI Next the Rawalpindi incident was planned by Sipah-e-Sahaba, a banned organization associated with the Taliban, to "persecute Shias in the country."
He accused state authorities of colluding with anti-Shiite forces. "Had state authorities taken steps, there would have been no such incident," Alvi said.
The violence occurred despite authorities’ assertion they made full security arrangements. On Nov. 20, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif ordered an inquiry into the incident. The government has taken action against some police officers who failed to maintain law and order in Rawalpindi.
Muhammad Asim Makhdoom, central information secretary of the Sami-ul-Haq faction of Jamiat-e-Ulema Pakistan party, a supporter of the Sunni seminary where clashes occurred, told UPI Next the Rawalpindi incident "was a well-thought-out conspiracy on the part of the Shias to attack the innocent Sunni students in the seminary."
"Shia terrorists demolished the seminary, and we are still clueless about where the students have gone," he said.
The federal government has formed a judicial commission and a fact-finding committee to investigate the strife and punish those responsible. On Dec. 2, religious leaders gathered in Lahore and agreed on a code of conduct for curbing sectarian violence.
Some Sunni religious parties held rallies across the country Nov. 22 to protest the violence and demanded action against the Shiites.
Shiites make up 15 percent of Pakistan's population, according to the CIA World Factbook. Nearly all the rest are Sunnis.
Muharram, which began Nov. 5, is the first month of the Muslim year and is considered a holy month. Shiite Muslims commemorate the martyrdom of Hazrat Imam Hussain, grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, in a battle on the 10th day of Muharram.
Shiite mourners flagellate themselves, beat their chests and cut themselves with knives to show their grief and solidarity with Imam Hussain in annual Muharram processions. Since the Sunnis consider the Shiite ceremonies un-Islamic, the month often brings violence.
The Taliban belong to the ultra-orthodox Deobandi sub-sect Sunni and do not consider Shiites to be Muslims. They are known to attack Shiites through affiliate groups such as Sipah-e-Sahaba and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi.
Adding to tensions in the region, Pakistani Taliban chief Hakimullah Mehsud was killed Nov. 1 in a U.S. drone attack. After naming hard-line commander Mullah Fazlullah as their new chief, the Taliban announced they would attack the Pakistani government, army and installations, especially in Punjab, where Sharif and other top leaders of the country are from.
Punjab police took special measures to avert any backlash, police spokeswoman Nabeela Ghazanfar told UPI Next. She said the level of threats was high this Muharram because of Mehsud's death.
Punjab police deployed 115,000 personnel, out of a total of 175,000, Ghanzafer said. About 200 arson suspects had been arrested in Punjab, she added.
Naveed Abbas, 24, a Shiite who was critically injured in Chishtian and admitted to Bahawalpur Victoria Hospital there, told UPI Next that 10 to 15 Deobandi from his area attacked him during the Nov. 15 Ashura procession observing the day when Imam Hussain was killed.
"Shia mourners fled about 200 Deobandi people who attacked the mosque," Abbas said. "First they desecrated our religious symbols and threw them out. They pushed me down and started beating me up with iron rods, clubs and bricks."
"Some Sunni Muslim friends who do not believe in any sect rescued me and took to hospital.
"Sunnis in general are not bad," Abbas added. "Some Deobandi do not leave us in peace."
Another Shiite, Irfan Haider, who works in an advertising agency, said he did not feel safe himself anywhere -- at home, at work or on the road -- because of the sectarian clashes.
"Those who are killing us and calling us non-Muslims are people with the Taliban mindset," he said.
Mehdi Hasan, a liberal scholar who heads the mass communications department at Beaconhouse National University in Lahore, told UPI Next that Sunnis and Shiites have been clashing on the subcontinent for 200 years.
He called the current wave of sectarianism the highest in at least a decade.
"Hundreds of armed workers, plus leaders of banned outfits on both sides, are roaming free in the country. About 60 outlawed organizations have changed names and are operating under different names," he said.
Hasan added that brandishing religion had become fashionable in this technological era, leading to sectarianism. He criticized the media for airing full, live coverage to leaders of outlawed organizations, which he said disrupts pluralism in society.
Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan told reporters Nov. 17 that security was improving. He said the government was holding talks with religious leaders of all schools of thought who showed patience.
But even Sunnis do not feel safe.
Aold Sunni who works at an accounting firm, told UPI Next: "I come home from my office at 10 p.m. and fear that I might be killed either by Sunni hard-liners or Shia hard-liners."
And Arooj Naeem, 38, a customer service representative at a private bank, said: "I am neither Sunni nor Shia. I am a simple Muslim and do not belong to any sect. I should be given the right to live in peace."