PESHAWAR -- Pakistani authorities have ramped up security as hundreds of processions and religious gatherings are expected between the first of Muharram, October 3, and Ashura, October 12.
Police in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), as in other provinces, are on high alert to prevent any terrorism attack on worship places during the holy month.
As many as 429 processions are expected across the province, while 940 majalis (religious gatherings inside imambargahs) will take place during Ashura, according to Pakistani media.
KP Inspector General of Police Nasir Khan Durrani received a detailed briefing on September 30 from all the regional police officers, district police officers and other senior police officials about the measures in place to ensure security during Muharram.
"All the officers were directed to take effective measures to ensure security as well as sectarian harmony during Muharram," Durrani told Pakistan Forward.
Police in KP have identified 129 "trouble spots" along the routes of Muharram processions where they will take extra security measures, he said. They identified Peshawar, Kohat, Dera Ismail Khan and Hangu as the most sensitive districts.
"All the officers were directed to ensure live electronic monitoring of all the processions through [their cellphones]," Durrani said.
Police have orders to sweep through procession routes and entrances of imambarghs with bomb detectors and sniffer dogs to avoid any untoward incident, he said.
In addition, Durrani made it clear that authorities will allow no new or unscheduled processions and will prosecute violators of that decision.
Importance of sectarian harmony
Religious scholars and elders held conferences in Peshawar, Lahore, Islamabad, Karachi, Quetta and other cities in recent days to stress the importance of sectarian harmony during Ashura, a major day for both Sunni and Shia Muslims.
"Ashura Muharram is equally important for all Muslims and all must play a role to ensure peace during the holy month," Qari Roohullah Madani, a Peshawar religious scholar and former KP provincial minister, told a conference in Peshawar on October 1.
He urged elders from all sects to help police maintain law and order during the processions and other gatherings.
Officials in Peshawar held a series of meetings during the last week of September to finalise security arrangements for Ashura.
Cinemas and music halls will remain closed during Ashura. In addition, KP district governments banned pillion (shared) riding on motorcycles and the brandishing of weapons under Section 144 of the Pakistan Penal Code.
A command post in Kohati will supervise all security arrangements from a central point.
"All the officers have been directed to remain in contact with religious scholars and elders to ensure religious harmony during Muharram," said Senior Superintendent of Police Operations for Peshawar Abbas Majeed Marwat.
Police officers have orders to patrol all the procession routes to ensure that they find anything suspicious on either side of the road.
Enhanced security operations
Police also have accelerated search-and-strike operations and check-points on roads in all rural, suburban and urban areas of the provincial capital to round up suspicious persons ahead of Muharram.
"During an action on Ring Road in suburban Peshawar on October 2, police recovered 46 pistols, eight semi-automatic rifles and 24,000 rounds of ammunition from a car that could have been used for violence during Muharram," Deputy Superintendent of Police for Suburb Fazal Wahid told Pakistan Forward.
Police made one arrest and are questioning the suspect, he said
"Search-and-strike operations also were conducted in the area, during which we rounded up two criminals wanted in different cases as well as 13 suspects," Wahid said.
District officials have chalked out enhanced security measures to ensure that Muharram passes without incident.
In Hangu, markets will remain closed on the 9th and 10th of Muharram (October 11-12) for security reasons, and police have declared eight imambarghs sensitive, according to Hangu District Police Officer Shah Nazar.
"Apart from over 3,500 policemen, three platoons each of the army and Frontier Corps and four platoons of the Frontier Constabulary will be deployed in the district for the peaceful observance of Muharram," he told Pakistan Forward.
Cracking down on hate speech
Security measures are reaching other parts of Pakistan.
In Punjab, Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif has ordered strict security throughout the province and launched action against all those delivering hate-filled speeches and distributing hate literature during Muharram.
"Special attention needs to be given to the security of mosques, imambargahs and processions during the holy month," Sharif said during an October 1 meeting to finalise arrangements for Muharram.
His government will not tolerate negligent security in worship places and along procession routes, he said.
The Sindh Rangers and police also finalised security arrangements to tackle any emergency situation in Karachi, Sindh Province, during Muharram, a September 28 Rangers statement said.
Elders pledge co-operation for peace
In Parachinar, Kurram Agency, another sensitive area, the army and political administration met with elders as part of the arrangements for the peaceful observance of Muharram.
Brig. Ameer Mohammad Khan and Kurram Agency political agent Ikramullah Khan October 1 addressed a jirga of elders in Parachinar, where the elders assured them of their complete support for maintaining peace during Muharram.
Also, to show religious and sectarian harmony and to ensure security, a group of Sunni Muslims volunteered to escort Muharram processions in Gilgit District.
Furthermore, emergency response teams will remain on standby during Ashura.
"Like other major events, our teams and ambulances will remain alert to respond in case of any emergency," Bilal Ahmad Faizi, a Rescue 1122 spokesman, told Pakistan Forward.