KARACHI -- Religious scholars, civil society activists and media representatives came together in Karachi to set up a joint forum aimed at curbing sectarian violence and promoting interfaith harmony in the region.
More than 30 participants met June 11-13 in Murree to discuss sectarian violence in Karachi, its impact and ways to reduce it.
The gathering was initiated by the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII), a state-run body that seeks to provide advice to the government on Islamic issues, in collaboration with the International Research Council for Religious Affairs (IRCRA), an Islamabad-based independent advocacy group.
Participants at the gathering acknowledged that Karachi had been afflicted with sectarian violence since 2007, with militants targeting religious scholars, leaders and madrassa students along with professionals such as doctors and traders.
They agreed to set up an initiative called "A Pur Aman (peaceful) Karachi," a forum in which representation would be given to all sects and ethnicities along with civil society and the media.
The purpose of the forum is to bring together scholars from different sects and faiths to identify common avenues for promoting harmony, said Muhammad Israr Madani, director of the IRCRA and the event's main organiser.
"The forum will help fellow citizens to speak up in support of interfaith harmony and in condemnation of growing intolerance and extremism in the country," Madani said in an interview.
The forum will act against calls for violence and vigilante action, while promoting harmony among various faiths and sects, he added.
Relatives of those killed or targeted in sectarian violence in Karachi are set to take part in the forum.
In March, the country's leading religious scholar and a former judge of the Federal Sharia Court, Mufti Taqi Usmani, escaped an assassination attempt while he was heading with his family to his mosque in Karachi to deliver the Friday sermon.
His nephew, Mufti Zubair Ashraf Usmani, who is also a religious scholar associated with Darul Uloom Karachi -- a key seminary in the country -- is participating in the forum.
"Efforts should be made to promote the commonalities, rather than differences, among sects," Mufti Taqi Usmani said in an interview. "Militants exploit the differences and spread fear and hatred by carrying out terror attacks."
An ongoing crackdown on proscribed militant groups has diminished sectarian violence across the country, particularly in Karachi, according to policy papers by various government and independent bodies.
Thirteen terrorist attacks in 2018 targeted other Islamic sects, a religious minority or a "rival sectarian group", the Pak Institute for Peace Studies (PIPS), an Islamabad-based independent think tank, said in its annual security report published in January. That was nine fewer than in 2017.
Karachi has been omitted from a list of areas considered to be flashpoints of sectarian violence for the past two years because of the multi-year crackdown taking place in the city, according to the report.
Still, officials say they are not letting down their guard.
"Although the ongoing crackdown that started in September 2013 has weakened Taliban groups, armed wings of ethno-political parties and criminal gangs, sectarian violence still poses a great challenge for law enforcement agencies," said a senior intelligence official in Karachi who was not authorised to speak to the media.
The "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" (ISIS) has also been exploiting the sectarian fault lines in the country, according to the official.
External factors, especially crises in the Middle Eastern countries and the expansion of ISIS in the region, are influencing Karachi's sectarian violence, he said.
In 2018, ISIS demonstrated its presence in Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) provinces by launching four attacks in Balochistan and one in KP, killing a total of 224 people and injuring 301, according to PIPS in its report.
"Daesh [ISIS] is getting involved in sectarian terrorist attacks both in Afghanistan and Pakistan," the report said.