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In Pakistan, a new mosque to unite Sunni and Shia

Pakistani children pray with adults after breaking their daily fast during the Muslim holy fasting month of Ramadan, in an unidentified mosque in Islamabad, July 21, 2013. (AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen)

Forget for a moment about polarizing drone warfare, crippling electricity shortages, and Pakistan's other multitude of social and economic worries.

Pakistanis awoke this week to some good news.

A new mosque is being built on the outskirts of Islamabad that welcomes Muslims who are both Sunni and Shia.

That's no small development in a country that has convulsed with sectarian violence in recent months, so much so that the uptick in violence has even been a subject tackled by artists.

The majority of Pakistani Muslims are Sunni while about 20 per cent of Pakistan's population of 180 million are Shiites. Sunnis and Shiites coexist peacefully in many parts of Pakistan, including Karachi, the country's economic hub. But in other places throughout Pakistan, radical Sunni clerics stoke hatred against Shiites.

The split between Sunnis and Shi'ites developed after the Prophet Muhammad died in 632 when his followers could not agree on a successor.

The group now known as Sunnis chose Abu Bakr, the prophet’s adviser, to become the first successor, or caliph, to lead the Muslim state. Shiites, however, favoured Ali, Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law.

That difference has split Muslim populations and led some countries such as Iraq to the edge of civil war.

Over the last 18 months, there have been 203 reported incidents of sectarian violence in Pakistan resulted in 1,800 casualties, including 717 deaths, of which 635 were Shia, The Daily Times of Pakistan reported earlier this month.

Pakistan's newest mosque, Darul Iman Jamia Masjid Qurtuba, aims to curb the sectarian violence.

Under Pakistan's development rules, every mosque has to declare its sect following, before being granted permission to build. To bypass that procedure, and call the mosque sect-free, Pakistani newspaper Dawn reports, developer Zahid Iqbal registered a trust, and then sub-registered the $308,000 mosque under the trust’s banner: The Al-Kitaab Foundation Trust.

Iqbal has already found an Imam for the mosque, Qari Jehangir, who is currently doing his Master’s degree from the Islamic University, Dawn reports. The coordinator of the mosque is doing his MBA from Preston University. Both are young men in their twenties. The Imam and Khateeb are both from different sects – and the mosque administration says it will have no problem if a Shia Imam leads prayers.

“This is God’s house. Even non-Muslims are allowed to come and seek the light," Iqbal told Dawn, calling his prayer hall a "model mosque."

The mosque also has a separate section for women, and a library with books from all sects.

Rick Westhead is a foreign affairs writer at The Star. He was based in India as the Star’s South Asia bureau chief from 2008 until 2011 and reports on international aid and development. Follow him on Twitter @rwesthead


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