A senior Islamic cleric who recently issued a fatwa in Bangladesh condemning violence and the killing of innocent people as a violation of Islamic law has narrowly escaped an attempt on his life that killed at least four other people.
Minutes before grand imam Maulana Fariduddin Masoud arrived to lead mass prayers at a festival in Kishoreganj Thursday commemorating Eid al-Fitr, police intercepted and fought with members of an armed gang heading for the site - possibly members of the same group that slaughtered foreigners and Bangladeshi citizens alike last week in an attack in Dhaka, the capital.
Officials at a checkpoint challenged a small group of men carrying bombs, guns and machetes toward a prayer ground several hundred meters away where more than 300,000 Muslims had gathered to celebrate the end of the holy month of Ramadan.
Fighting broke out immediately at the checkpoint outside Kishoreganj’s Solakia Eid prayer ground, and reports say the militants threw a crude bomb at the police. Two police officers, one militant and a woman bystander were killed during the battle, and a dozen or more others were injured, but one of the attackers, a 19-year-old man, was wounded and captured alive.
A government source said the young militant admitted the plan was to kill Maulana Masoud. The wounded man said he was in a gang of eight militants. It was not clear whether any were still at large.
Other Muslim leaders in Bangladesh and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina denounced the attempted attack in Kishoreganj, which is about 140 kilometers from Dhaka by road.
At the insistence of security teams, Maulana Masoud did not lead the Solakia Eid prayers, in favor of a substitute imam. But the noted Islamic scholar repeated his denunciations of violence, declaring mayhem by supposed Islamic extremists is contrary to "the spirit of Islam."
Thursday's battle in Kishoreganj took place six days after suspected Islamists burst into a café in an affluent section of Dhaka and opened fire on the evening of July 1. The gang held several dozen people hostage, but police moved in after a night-long siege. At least 20 people were killed, including five of the militants; most of the victims were foreign nationals.
The Islamic State group said it carried out the attack in Dhaka's Gulshan neighborhood, although government officials disputed that claim. However, a deputy inspector general of police said it appeared the same group that engineered the Gulshan attack was involved in the attempt to disrupt Thursday's prayer service at Kishoreganj in central Bangladesh.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the violence at the prayer ground.
Maulana Masoud spoke out against last week's killings in Dhaka and also issued a fatwa on June 18 condemning violence committed in the name of Islam. He said he received a number of death threats, and was not surprised to find that he had been targeted for assassination Thursday.
"Since I began my campaign against terrorism, condemning the violent attacks and killings in the name of Islam as un-Islamic, through fatwa and in other ways, I have been receiving threats," he told VOA. "However, I shall all along stand by what I said against the Islamists, because my fatwa and other related statements are all based on the tenets of the Quran."
The Islamic scholar said he believes firmly that militants' "acts of ... mayhem and killing indeed go against the spirit of Islam,” and in fact are “attempts to distort the tenets of the Quran.” He said he would not be cowed by threats from Islamists.
“In the name of Islam, they are launching attacks near the holy site of the tomb of Prophet Muhammad," in Medina, Saudi Arabia, the imam told VOA. "They are violently targeting an Eid prayer congregation. They are the enemies of Islam and the Muslims. We have to unite to fight them.”
Maulana Arifuddin Maruf, prayer leader of Dhaka’s Circuit House Jame Masjid, said that it defied belief that groups claiming to be fighting for Islam could try to kill an imam and Islamic scholar who presented the Quranic interpretation of violent attacks against innocent people. "In harshest words we condemn such attacks,” Maulana Maruf told VOA.
Sheikh Hasina echoed the imams' denunciation of violence committed in the name of Islam. “Instead of taking part in an Eid prayer, they are planning to launch a violent attack to kill people there. I cannot figure out how these people call themselves Muslim,” the prime minister said.
"We are determined to fight on. We shall not allow Bangladesh to be a country of terrorists and militants,” she added.