ISLAMABAD - United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres hailed as the “symbol of interfaith harmony” an overland passage Pakistan recently opened for Sikh devotees from India to pay a visa-free homage to one of their holiest sites.
Guterres traveled Tuesday to what is called the Kartarpur Corridor and toured the sprawling newly built marbled complex hosting the Sikh temple, known as the Gurdwara Darbar Sahib.
In a post-trip tweet, the U.N. chief said he was honored to visit what he described as “a corridor of hope, connecting two key Sikh pilgrimage sites.”
The Gurdwara or shrine is believed to have been built on the site where the founder of Sikhism, Guru Nanak, lived and died in the 16th century.
The 4.1-kilometer Kartarpur Corridor links the shrine to Dera Baba Nana temple in the northwestern border town of Gurdaspur on the Indian side.
Islamabad opened the facility last November, enabling Indian Sikhs to visit the temple in Kartarpur for the first time since 1947 when British India was divided into two independent states of India and Pakistan.
“When we see in so many parts of the world fighting in the name of of religion, it’s necessary to say that religions unite us for peace and the best symbol is this shrine,” Guterres told reporters inside the Sikh shrine.
The U.N. chief visited the Sikh religious site Tuesday as he wrapped up his three-day visit to the country at a time when Pakistan’s tensions with India have escalated dangerously over the disputed Kashmir territory.
Speaking in Islamabad at the start of his visit, Guterres said he was “deeply concerned” about the increase in tensions.
“I have repeatedly stressed the importance of maximum restraint and taking steps to de-escalate both militarily and verbally while reiterating my offer to exercise my good offices should both sides ask,” the secretary-general said.
But India swiftly rejected the latest offer of mediation by the U.N. chief, saying Kashmir was a bilateral matter between the two countries.
“There is no role or scope for third party mediation,” reiterated the Indian foreign ministry spokesman in his reaction.
India controls two-thirds of Kashmir, and Pakistan controls the rest. Both the countries claim the Himalayan region in its entirety and have fought two of their three wars over it.
Bilateral tensions have markedly worsened since last August, when New Delhi unilaterally revoked a decades-old constitutional special autonomous status for its portion of Kashmir.
The Indian government defends the move, saying it will help stamp out terrorism and spur development in the country's most restive region.
Pakistan rejects Indian actions, saying Kashmir is an internationally recognized disputed territory under U.N. Security Council resolutions and neither side can unilaterally alter the status.
Since August, Indian authorities also have placed millions of residents of the country’s only Muslim-majority region under tight security clampdown and imposed a communications blackout to counter violent reactions to the moves, although the restrictions have been partially eased in recent weeks.
"We have been expressing very clearly the absolute need for human rights to be fully respected in Kashmir,” Guterres said while referring to the lockdown in Indian-rule portion of the region.
The U.N. chief was in Pakistan for a conference marking 40 years of the presence of refugees in the country fleeing years of violence and persecution in neighboring war-torn Afghanistan.