ISLAMABAD— Sunni-dominated Pakistan has seen an unprecedented spike in religious violence this year, with at least 375 minority Shi'ite Muslims killed across the country. Government critics say the violent conflict is likely to intensify if authorities do not do more to improve local governance and punish those who carry out sectarian attacks.
Sectarian bloodshed in Pakistan had peaked in the 1990s, and the violence subsided after the country joined with the U.S.-led coalition 10 years ago to fight terrorist and extremist groups.
Under pressure from the United States and other allies, Pakistan banned several Shi'ite and Sunni militant groups for having links to al-Qaida and Taliban extremists fighting coalition forces in Afghanistan.
Hazara community targeted
But sectarian violence has returned this year with targeted attacks on Shi'ite Muslims. Official figures indicate that since the start of 2012, at least 134 people have died in sectarian attacks in Baluchistan, mostly in the provincial capital Quetta. Nearly all of those killed were Shi'ite Muslims and a majority of those were members of the Hazara community, a Persian speaking Shi'ite population that emigrated to Pakistan from neighboring Afghanistan more than a century ago.
Community leaders say the growing sense of insecurity has forced thousands of young Hazaras to turn to human smugglers and try to reach countries like Australia by undertaking an expensive and dangerous journey across the Indian Ocean.
Abdul Khaliq Hazara, a senior activist of the Hazara's in Quetta, says that the journey in small boats has already taken hundreds of lives and those who survived have ended up in jails abroad. He says that sectarian attacks have become routine in the city but authorities have so far not made a single arrest.
"The [Pakistani] government and law enforcement agencies, they do not pursue them [attackers]. And they openly do whatever they want and after that we don’t know where they vanish and where they go. That is why I think the [Hazara] people prefer [to migrate]. Many of them have migrated because their life, education, their business, their property, it is not safe," he said.
Sunni militant groups blamed
Shi'ite leaders in Pakistan blame outlawed Sunni militant groups like Lashkar-e-Jhangvi for the attacks. Some of these groups allegedly still have links to elements within the country’s spy networks, a charge strongly denied by Pakistani authorities.
Provincial Home Secretary Akbar Hussain Durrani says that in recent weeks the administration has beefed up security for the Hazara community in and around Quetta and has deployed a “dedicated” security force to counter the sectarian attacks. He believes these steps will discourage the migration of the Shi'ite population from Baluchistan.
"After taking these measures, the confidence level of the community will be enhanced and such type of migration would be stopped," he said.
Islamization under Zia ul-Haq
While there have long been sectarian tensions between Sunnis and Shiites, many trace the current trouble to the 1980s, when then military dictator General Zia ul-Haq began promoting religious orthodoxy to appease the country’s Islamic forces.
Christine Amjad Ali heads the Christian Study Center in Rawalpindi, an organization working for the rights of minorities and for interfaith harmony.
"The Islamization, everything that happened under Zia [ul-Haq], has become so much part of the country’s psyche that there is a pushing out of anyone who is not Muslim at the moment, and even a shrinking of the definition of Muslim I would say. So, Shias [Shi'ites] are facing attacks as well, and a generation has grown up being taught that actually Muslims are the only people who matter effectively, and that is just having its effect," she said.
A recent international survey by the Pew Research Center found that 50 percent of Sunnis in Pakistan believe Shias to be non-Muslims.
Regional proxy war
Some observers also see the sectarian violence as part of a regional proxy war. They accused Iran and donors in Saudi Arabia of funding rival Shi'ite and Sunni Pakistani militants. Tehran, however, alleges the United States is supporting Sunni militants in the country’s eastern and western border regions to destabilize Iran.
Speaking in Islamabad earlier this month, visiting chairman of Iranian parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, Alaeddin Boroujerdi refused to reply to repeated questions about Iran’s interest in countering foreign-backed Sunni groups. Instead, he accused the United States and its Western allies of creating rifts between Shi'ite and Sunni Muslims with an objective to destabilize Iran.
The senior Iranian lawmaker said that in his view, “it is an undeniable fact that [the American] CIA is instrumental in creating the disunity." He stated that religious scholars in Pakistan and Iran can play an important role in creating an atmosphere of unity to overcome sectarianism.
In recent years media reports have accused the CIA of supporting the Sunni militant group Jundallah. However the U.S. state department designated Jundallah as a terrorist group in 2010.
Need for criminal justice system reforms
Meanwhile, Pakistani police and courts remain under fire for not being able to effectively apprehend and prosecute militant groups. Some militant groups operate with impunity in rural parts of the country and Pakistani courts have an acquittal rate of more than 70 percent.
Former Pakistani interior minister Moinuddin Hadier says that the country urgently needs to introduce reforms in its criminal justice system.
"These conditions, which are today prevailing in Pakistan where judges get scared, where police do not investigate things properly for the fear of retaliation by these terrorists and the prosecution also does not make a strong case although they know that people are involved in terrorism," said Hadier.
Legal experts in Pakistan say curbing the problem will mean closing loopholes in existing anti-terrorism laws, and stopping the killing of witnesses, judges, prosecutors and police officers investigating sectarian-related crimes.