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Mufti Muneeb says Karachi rally aimed to ‘promote peace’ amid fears of sectarian violence

Vast crowds of men thronged downtown Karachi -- Pakistan's largest city and a major business and industrial hub -- many of them waving sectarian flags and chanting power slogans.

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Tens of thousands of protesters, including demonstrators linked to extremists, rallied in Pakistan’s Karachi on Saturday, in the second day of protests that have sparked fears of sectarian violence.

Vast crowds of men thronged downtown Karachi — Pakistan’s largest city and a major business and industrial hub — many of them waving sectarian flags and chanting power slogans.

The rallies follow a raft of blasphemy accusations against some religious leaders in Muslim-majority Pakistan after a broadcast of a procession last month showed clerics and participants allegedly making disparaging remarks about historic Islamic figures.

Read more: Is publication of blasphemous cartoons a naked attempt to provoke Muslims?

A security official told AFP Saturday’s crowd was estimated to exceed 30,000 people. There were no immediate reports of violence.

The rally was organised by the organisation Jamaat Ahle Sunnat and by the hardline Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), which has organised huge and often violent protests over alleged blasphemy in the past.

“If you play with the religious sentiments, we will not tolerate it,” Karachi TLP chief Allama Abid Mubara told the rally.

Religious people could ultimately “get their heads cut off, but can also behead other people,” he added. But Mufti Muneeb-ur-Rehman, who was the event’s main speaker, insisted the rally aimed to “promote peace.”

“Our movement is not against any sectarian group, our movement is against those individuals who desecrate our revered personalities,” he said.

Blasphemy is a hugely sensitive issue in conservative Pakistan where laws can carry the death penalty for anyone deemed to have insulted Islam or Islamic figures. Even unproven allegations have led to mob lynchings and vigilante murders.

Read more: Blasphemy and exploitation by religious extremists

Sectarian violence has erupted in fits and bursts for decades in Pakistan, with militant groups bombing shrines and targeting processions in attacks that have killed thousands.

A crackdown by security forces culminated in July 2015 when Malik Ishaq — the chief of banned group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) — was killed in a firefight with police along with 13 fellow militants.

The shootout wiped out much of the top leadership of LeJ, a driving force in the violence targeting different sects.

Read more: ‘Stop barking, French dogs!’: Protests in Pakistan over Charlie Hebdo’s reprint of blasphemous cartoons

Amir Rana, director for the Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies, warned Saturday’s rally could stoke tensions. “It will have negative consequences and will increase the sectarian divide,” he told AFP.

AFP with additional input by GVS News Desk

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