ISLAMABAD // Islamist politicians and clerics launched an "apolitical" bloc yesterday aimed at stemming the growing tide of sectarian violence in the country, a move that critics say has little chance of success.
Thousands of people from Pakistan's majority Sunni and minority Shiite sects have been killed in attacks by militants from both sides for nearly two decades.
The independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) in its recent annual report said nearly 400 people were killed and more than 600 were wounded in sectarian attacks in the country in 2011. In 2010, 420 people were killed and nearly 1000 wounded in over 200 suicide bombings and other sectarian violence in the country, according to HRCP.
"We will try to extinguish the fire of sectarianism and save lives of innocent people and bring different schools of thought closer," Qazi Hussain Ahmed, an influential Islamist politician and the former head of Jamaat-e-Islami group, the most organsied Islamic political party told a gathering of Sunni and Shiite leaders.
Pakistan's most heavily populated province, Punjab, has traditionally been the hotbed of the militant groups from Sunni and Shiite sects but sectarian violence has spread to regions previously not associated with such strife.
In February, suspected Sunni militants stormed a passenger bus in Kohistan, a remote north-western district not known for militancy, killing all 18 Shiites travelling in the bus and sparing others.
The attack sparked riots in the nearby Gilgit-Baltistan region bordering China, forcing authorities to enforce a curfew for more than three weeks in which 22 people were killed and 60 wounded.
Attacks on Shiites have also increased in Quetta, the capital of the south-western province of Baluchistan on the border with predominantly Shiite Iran and Afghanistan.
The HRCP said a large number of ethnic Hazaras, who are Shiites, were fleeing Baluchistan - and the country - because of constant threats and killings.
Mr Ahmed said the bloc, Islamic Solidarity Council made up of about a dozen Islamic groups, planned to set up a "reconciliation commission" to settle disputes between the different sects through negotiations instead of violence.
The bloc after the meeting said that declaring members of any Muslim sect as heretics went against Islam and was a despicable act.
"Terrorism and killings in the name of Islam is condemnable and against the teachings of Islam." the Council said in a statement after the meeting.
The two main sects of Islam have largely lived in harmony but the country saw a surge of sectarian militancy in the 1970s and the 1980s during the so-called "Islamisation drive" by the military leader General Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq. Pakistan's support for the US-backed Afghan war against the Soviet invasion also saw a spike in the creation of radical groups and madrasas.
Pakistan's campaign against sectarianism suffered after it joined the US-led war on terrorism in 2001. Many Sunni militant groups forged ties with Al Qaeda and the Taliban, intensifying their attacks on Shiites as part of a wider campaign to destabilise Pakistan.
Al Qaeda and its extremist allies deem Shiites as heretics.
After becoming a US ally in 2001, Pakistan mounted a crackdown on militancy. Several groups were banned, hundreds were arrested and radical clerics were warned against spreading hatred in sermons and texts.
But critics say much of these actions proved futile as many of the outlawed groups have re-emerged with new names and their leaders were roaming freely around the country preaching hatred.
Analysts say religious intolerance is so well-entrenched among the Islamist groups that it could not be ended just by holding conferences and launching new alliances.
"Unless these religious groups single out those among them who are spreading sectarianism and stop talking to them, this problem will not be resolved," an independent political analyst Hasan Askari Rizvi said. The Islamic Solidarity Council "seems more to be an attempt to forge a religious coalition ahead of general elections than an effort to end sectarianism".