Sectarianism in Pakistan

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Sectarian violence in Pakistan
Part of the War on Terrorism
Date 1989 – present
(27 years)
Location  Pakistan
Result Ongoing

Sunni factions:

N.B.: The factional situation is complex; Sunni [Wahabis] have killed Shiite's in Pakistan[citation needed] and have colluded with government forces.[citation needed]

Sectarian violence in Pakistan refers to attacks against people and places in Pakistan motivated by antagonism toward the target's sect, usually a religious group. Targets in Pakistan include the Sunni, Shia,[1] and the small Ahmadi, Hindu and Christian religious groups. As many as 4,000 people are estimated to have been killed in Shia-Sunni sectarian fighting in Pakistan between 1987–2007.[2] And since 2008 "thousands of Shia" have been killed by Sunni extremists according to the human rights group Human Rights Watch.[3] One significant aspect of the attacks on Shi'a in Pakistan is that militants often target Shi’a worshipping places (Imambargah) during prayers in order to maximize fatalities and to "emphasize the religious dimensions of their attack".[4] Human Rights Watch also states that in 2011 and 2012 Pakistan minority groups Hindus, Ahmadi, and Christians "faced unprecedented insecurity and persecution in the country".[5][6] Attacks on Sufi shrines by Salafi have also been reported.[7][8]

Among those blamed for the sectarian violence in the country are mainly Sunni militant groups, such as the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, Sipah-e-Sahaba, Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (affiliates of Al-Qaeda),[9] Jundallah (affiliates of Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant).[4] Lashkar-e-Jhangvi "has claimed responsibility for most attacks" on Shia according to Human Rights Watch.[3] Sunni militant groups are also blamed for attacks on fellow Sunnis, Barelvis and Sufis.[10] These attacks sometimes result in tit-for-tat reprisal attacks by the victims.[10][11]

Religions and sects[edit]

Shia and Sunni

Estimates of the size of the two largest religious groups in Pakistan vary. According to Library of Congress, Pew Research Center, Oxford University, the CIA Factbook and other experts, adherents of Shi'a Islam in Pakistan make up 20–25% of the population of Pakistan[1][12][13][14][15][16][17][18] while the remaining 70–75%[1][12][13] are Sunni.

This makes Pakistan the country with the second largest Shia community after Iran by number of adherents. (Globally, Shia Islam constitutes 10–15%[12][13][17][19][20] of the total Muslims, while the remaining 85%–90% practice Sunni Islam.[21])

Ahmadi and Sunni

An estimated 2.3% of the population are Ahmadi Muslims,[22] who were designated 'non-Muslims' by a 1974 constitutional amendment, although they consider themselves Muslims, due to pressure from Sunni extremist groups.[23]

Other groups

Non-Muslim religions include Hinduism and Christianity, each with 2,800,000 (1.6%) adherents as of 2005.[24] The Bahá'í Faith claims 30,000, followed by Sikhs, Buddhists and Parsis, each claiming 20,000 adherents,[16] and a very small community of Jains.



As early as the mid-1950s, there were Sunnis-Ahmadi Muslim clashes (1953 Lahore riots). During the administration of President Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, sectarianism in Pakistan, especially in Karachi and South Punjab, became violent as the process of his Islamization began in the Pakistani judicial system. Zia-ul-Haq was influenced by the Salafi beliefs early on and methodically helped propagate and promote Salafi doctrines. The Pakistani Sunni community is divided into many school of thoughts, including: Barelvis, Deobandis, Sufis and Salafis.

Social laws, which had been tolerant of the open-sale of alcohol and the intermingling of the sexes, were severely curtailed by President Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq's laws, although hardliners in both the Shia and Sunni camps were largely in favour of his restrictions. The process eventually came upon issues in which Sunni and Shia viewpoints differed. In such instances, Zia favoured the Sunni interpretation of Islam over the Shia one, causing a rift between the two communities.

Possible outside funding[edit]

Some allege that Persian Gulf Arab states, especially Saudi Arabia, are exacerbating tensions by funding radical extremist Sunnis. Wikileaks has reported that US$100 million are gifted to extremist Wahabi preachers in Southern Punjab from outside countries such as Saudi Arabia. Southern Punjab contains active extremist Sunni groups such as LEJ and their benefactors, such as Tehrike Taliban and Al-Qaeda.[25]

Sectarian violence in Pakistan is a recent phenomenon (starting in the late 1970s and significantly growing in the mid 1980s) and that for most of the country's history, people of different sects have co-existed peacefully. The development of sectarianism is widely attributed to be a result of Arab states and other outside powers inside Pakistan having provided millions of dollars of funding to fundamentalist networks.[26]

A fact recognized by all in Pakistan is that the people of the country are not sectarian-minded. Before jihad took hold of Pakistan and extremist clerics became threatening, there was considerable harmony between the sects. Muharram was not the season of sectarian violence and mayhem. Today, the world understands that the intensification of the sectarian feeling among the clerics is actually a result of a war relocated from Pakistan’s neighbourhood in the Gulf.


Since the year 2000, over 2000 Shia Hazara community members including many women and children have been killed or wounded in attacks perpetrated by Al-Qaeda and Taliban in the southwestern town of Quetta. Many hundreds of Shia Muslims have been killed in northern areas of Pakistan, such as Gilgit, Baltistan, Parachinar and Chelas. The violence worsened immediately after 11 September 2001 and the expulsion of the Taliban from Afghanistan.[28] In 2002, 12 Shia Hazara police cadets were gunned down in Quetta. In 2003, the main Shia Friday Mosque was attacked in Quetta, killing 53 worshippers. On 2 March 2004, at least 42 persons were killed and more than 100 wounded when a procession of Shia Muslims was attacked by rival Sunni extremists at Liaquat Bazaar in Quetta.[29] In 2006, sectarian violence led to 300 deaths.[30]

On 28 December 2009, as many as 40 Shias were killed in an apparent suicide bombing in Karachi. The bomber attacked a Shia procession that was held to mark Ashura.[31] Since June 2010 in Karachi, Sipah-e-Sahaba is involved in the target killing of seven innocent bystanders and intellectuals; all were from the Twelver Shia Muslim community. Sectarian riots and the targeted killing of doctors in the provincial capital have drawn attention to the present democratic system. Karachi had witnessed similar sectarian tension in the early 1980s when then-President Zia-ul-Haq was in power. The military regime of those years had supported certain groups to strengthen its rule and Karachi underwent the worst situation after the sectarian riots. The Shia-Sunni clashes had started from the same section of the city, Godra Colony in New Karachi, after a small incident, and subsequently the clashes gripped the entire city.

In early September 2010, three separate attacks were reported in different parts of Pakistan. The first one took place on 1 September in Lahore where at least 35 Shia were killed and 160 people were injured during a procession. The second attack was reported to have taken place in Mardan, targeted Ahmadiyyas, and at least one person was killed. The third one occurred on 3 September in the city of Quetta, and killed 55 people during another procession.[32]

On 16 December, a mortar attack killed nine people, including women and children, in Hangu, a town that has been a flash point for sectarian clashes between Shia and Sunni communities in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) Province, near the tribal area. On the same day in another attack, one child was killed and 28 people were wounded in Peshawar, the capital of KP province, as Shia Muslims marked Ashura.[33]


In the February 2012 Kohistan Shia Massacre, 18 Shia Muslim residents of Gilgit-Baltistan travelling by bus from Rawalpindi, Punjab to Gilgit, Gilgit Baltistan in Pakistan died. The buses were stopped in Kohistan and the victims killed by individuals dressed in military uniforms based on their religious affiliation. The dead included three children, while 27 other passengers on the bus were spared.

On 16 August 2012, four buses destined for Gilgit and the Eid-ul-Fitr festivals were stopped. Twenty-five Shia passengers were identified by their identity cards, separated from other passengers, and shot dead. Al-Qaeda-affiliated Sunni Muslim militants claimed responsibility for the attack. Three Shia Hazara community members were shot dead in the town of Quetta, which is home to a Sunni Taliban leadership group known as Quetta Shura.

On 10 January 2013, several bombings took place in the southwestern Pakistani city of Quetta and in the northern Swat Valley, killing a total of 130 people and injuring at least 270.

A Bomb blast on Thursday 10 January 2013 occurred at a snooker club which was close to a police station and a Shia Mosque. "First suicidal attack was conducted and then a car bomb exploded on Alamdar Road,” Said Mir Zubair Mehmood, the Capital City Police Officer. The bomb exploded at 8:50 p.m. local time. As police, rescuers and media personal rushed to the blast site, another bomb fixed to a vehicle parked near the site exploded, causing an even greater number of casualties. Over 100 were killed and 121 wounded in the second twin bomb attack. Lashkae-e-jhangvi (LEJ), an extremist terrorist group banned by the government, has claimed responsibility for all the blasts. LEJ has organized under the name Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamat and the leader of the organization is Ahmad Ludhanvi, an extremist Salafi priest.

The family members of the people killed in the bomb blast refused to bury the dead unless the perpetrators were prosecuted, the military provided security for and took over the city of Quetta, and attackers stop killing Shia Muslims. Protesters staged a sit-in beginning the in solidarity with them in other cities, including Lahore, Karachi and Islamabad, on both Friday and Saturday. Protests have also occurred outside the Pakistani embassy in London and the Birmingham Consulate, in addition to countries with Shia populations such as Canada and Australia. Islamic custom dictates the dead should be buried as soon possible; to postpone the burial is symbolic of the pain and suffering the families of the killed experience.

Further information: January 2013 Pakistan bombings

Quetta Market bombing[edit]

On Saturday 16 February 2013, at least 90 people were reported dead and 180 wounded after a bomb exploded in a grocery market in Quetta. The death toll subsequently rose to 113.[34] The terrorist group Lashkae-e-jhangvi has claimed responsibility for the attack. Prime Minister Raja Pervaiz Ashraf said, "the government was determined to fight such dastardly acts and bring the culprits to justice." The remote-controlled bomb was hidden in a water tanker, and ripped through the town's main bazaar, a language school, and a computer center. At the time of the blast on Saturday afternoon, dozens of people, mainly women, were shopping for the evening meal and children were leaving classes. Quetta police chief Mir Zubia Mehmood said the explosive weighed 1000 kg, which was larger than the explosives used in the January attack.[35][36][37][38]

Targeted killings[edit]

On 18 February 2013, an unidentified gunmen shot dead Dr. Syed Ali Haider and his 11-year-old son while they were driving in their car in the Gulberg area of Lahore. Haider was shot six times in the head and died instantly while his son was shot once in the head and later died at a hospital. Haider was a leading vitreo-retinal surgeon, who also worked in collaboration with the Shaukat Khanum Memorial Trust Hospital. According to his uncle, he had "no personal enmity" and his killing was sectarian-motivated as he belonged to the Shia community. These killings were widely condemned.[39][40]

Karachi bombing[edit]

On 3 March 2013, a powerful bomb blast in the city of Karachi in the area of Abbas Town killed 45 people and wounded 150 others. The Bomb exploded outside a Shia Mosque as people were leaving from prayers. The blast destroyed the building, set other buildings on fire, and caused a power outage in the city. Human rights group have accused the Pakistani government of turning a "blind eye" to the bombings.[41][42][43][44]

Parachinar twin market bombing[edit]

On Friday 26 July 2013, a twin set of bomb blasts occurred in Parachinar, the main town of Kurram tribal Agency. The bomb blast killed 60 people and injured at least 187.[45] The first bomb blast hit the Parachinar market as people were busy buying food in preparation for the opening of the fast. The second bomb exploded near a road side. A terrorist organisation called Ansarul mujahideenhas claimed responsibility.[46] Abu baser spokesmen told a news channel that the attacks were carried out to seek revenge for Sunni Muslims in Syria and Iraq. "We have planned more similar attacks against the Shia community in Pakistan." Syed Jamal Shan, who visited the twin bombing site, told the Express Tribune, "The blast took place when people were shopping for ifthar. Blood and pieces of human flesh were scattered all around." Shia clerics and leaders demanded military action against the perpetrators of the twin blasts similar to the one in the Swat valley. The elder of the six Sunni tribes living in lower Kurram Agency expressed their sorrow over the incident to show solidarity with the victims of the bombings. The Sunni elders expressed their pain they share over the tragedy.[citation needed]

Ashoura violence[edit]

During the Shia procession for Ashoura in November, violence took place in Rawalpindi leading to a curfew where when the Ashoura procession was passing in front of a Sunni mosque. The curfew was lifted, but violence continued and the curfew was reimposed. Nine people In which 8 shias and a passerby died and 50 others were injured, while a Sunni seminary students burned markets down. Violence also erupted in Multan and Chishtian, where soldiers were called out to maintain law and order. In Chishtian, a Shia mosque was partially damaged and several shops were destroyed when Sunnis torched them. At least six Imambargahs and shi'ite mosques were burnt by the armed group of Ahle-Sunnat wal Jamaat on the night of Ashura. Imambargah Hifazat Ali Shah, Bohar Bazar, Rawalpindi was burnt and Zuljinnah (Horse) was killed.[47][48]

Following that violence, in Kohat, at least three people were killed and the army was called in to establish control. In this incident, the Sunni armed group Ahl e Sunnat Wal Jamaat held a rally on 18 November to protest the Rawalpindi; the deaths then happened after Ahl-e-Sunnat Wal Jamaat's terrorists fired near a Shia mosque.[49]


Pak-Iran border Pilgrims killings[edit]

At least 23 people die and seven are wounded in gun and suicide attack in a restaurant near the Pakistan-Iran border. Most or all of these people are believed to be Shia Pilgrims coming from Iran. They say the gunmen targeted hotels in the town of Taftan, Balochistan province, where the pilgrims were staying after returning from Iran. Recent years have witnessed a series of bloody attacks by Sunni militants on Pakistan's Shia community.[50] [51]

Shikarpur Mosque bomb blast[edit]

In Friday, January 30, 2015, over 60 people were killed at a bomb blast at a Shia mosque in Shikarpur, Pakistan. Militant group Jundullah claimed responsibility for the attack.[52]

Shiite man killed in police custody[edit]

An axe-wielding police officer killed a Shiite man in police custody, claiming he had committed blasphemy by insulting companions of the Prophet Muhammad.[53]


Lahore church bombings[edit]

On 15 March 2015, two churches in Lahore were bombed during Sunday services,[54] killing 15 people and wounding seventy others.[55][56]

2015 Karachi bus shooting[edit]

On 13 May 2015 an armed attack on a bus travelling near Karachi left at least 45 people dead. Most of the victims were of the Ismaili Shia minority, suggesting the attack to have been a targeted killing of sectarian nature.


Further information: Sufism § Pakistan, and Sufism in Pakistan

In two years, 2010 and 2011, 128 people were killed and 443 were injured in 22 attacks on Shrines and tombs of saints and religious people in Pakistan, most of them Sufi in orientation.[57]

Sufism, a mystical Islamic tradition, has a long history and a large popular following in Pakistan. Popular Sufi culture is centred on Thursday night gatherings at shrines and annual festivals which feature Sufi music and dance. Contemporary Islamic fundamentalists criticise its popular character, which in their view, does not accurately reflect the teachings and practice of the Prophet and his companions.[8][58]


Ahmadi Muslims are declared as 'Non-Muslims' by the Bhutto government which gave into Sunni extremist pressure in 1974 and further deprived of their basic religious rights in the Second Amendment to the Constitution of Pakistan and Ordinance XX which has led to thousands of cases of Ahmadis charged with various offences for alleged blasphemy and further fueled the Sectarian tensions. Many thousands of Ahmadis were killed in 1953 Lahore riots, 1974 Anti-Ahmadiyya riots and the May 2010 attacks on Ahmadi mosques in Lahore. The 1953 riots were the largest killings of Ahmadis. In 2014, a prominent Canadian national surgeon, Dr. Mehdi Ali Qamar was killed in front of his family while on a humanitarian visit to Pakistan, one of 137 other Ahmadis killed in Pakistan from 2010-2014.[59]

Following the 2010 Lahore massacre, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, said "Members of this religious community have faced continuous threats, discrimination and violent attacks in Pakistan. There is a real risk that similar violence might happen again unless advocacy of religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence is adequately addressed. The Government must take every step to ensure the security of members of all religious minorities and their places of worship so as to prevent any recurrence of today’s dreadful incident." Ban's spokesperson expressed condemndation and extended his condolences to the families of the victims and to the Government.[60]


A Christian church in Islamabad was attacked after 11 September 2001, and some Americans were among the dead.

On 22 September 2013, a twin suicide bomb attack took place at All Saints Church[61] in Peshawar, Pakistan, in which 127 people were killed and over 250 injured.[62][63][64][65] On 15 March 2015, two blasts took place at Roman Catholic Church and Christ Church during Sunday service at Youhanabad town of Lahore.[54] At least 15 people were killed and seventy were wounded in the attacks.[66][67]


According to Indian newspapers, as of late 2012, Hindus have fled from Pakistan due to forced conversions, extortion and kidnapping of Hindu girls and on 10 August 2012, around 250 Hindu refugees from Pakistan crossed over to India.[68][69][70][71][72]

See also[edit]


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