Death threats by text message as Shiites bear brunt of sectarian tension in Pakistan

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Pakistani Shiites, targeted in three explosions that killed 16 people on Wednesday, are receiving death-threat texts on their mobile phones ahead of a key event in their religious calendar. “Kill, Kill, Shiites,” say the warnings to members of the minority sect.

Sunni militant groups linked to al-Qaeda have in recent months stepped up attacks against Pakistan’s Shiites, whom they regard as non-Muslims.

Pakistan’s Taleban claimed responsibility for Wednesday’s violence and said it would stage more attacks on Shiites. More than 300 Shiites have been killed in Pakistan so far this year in sectarian conflict, according to human rights groups.

“Genocide against Shiites is already taking place in Pakistan, so the text messages don’t really matter that much,” said Jalal Haider, who received a threat.

Militant Sunnis are expected to strike again this weekend, the climax of the Shiite mourning month of Muharram. Radical Sunni groups have previously staged suicide bombings against processions on that occasion.

Muharram marks the anniversary of the Battle of Karbala, where the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad and his family members were killed.

About 50,000 people are expected to march through the streets of Islamabad tomorrow and thousands of security personnel will be deployed in a bid to avoid attacks.

Any large-scale sectarian violence could hurt Pakistan’s efforts to show it has improved security as it hosts the leaders of eight developing countries at a summit in Islamabad.

Pakistani intelligence officials say extremist groups, led by Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), have escalated the bombing and shooting of Shiites to trigger violence that would pave the way for a Sunni theocracy in Pakistan.

The schism between Sunnis and Shiites developed after the Prophet died in 632 when his followers could not agree on a successor. Sunnis recognise the first four caliphs as his rightful successors. The Shiites believe the Prophet named his son-in-law Ali. Emotions over the issue are highly potent in modern times, pushing some countries, including Iraq five years ago, to the brink of civil war.

Pakistan is nowhere near that stage but officials worry that LeJ and other groups have succeeded in dramatically ratcheting up tensions and provoking revenge attacks.