Iraqi, Kashmiri Shia Muslims linked by relief work
KUTCHA SYEDAN, Pakistan, Mar 28 (Reuters) For a small Kashmiri community of Shia Muslims, last October's earthquake has brought them closer to another tragedy, the conflict in Iraq.
Living on the banks of the Jhelum river, just a few miles inside Pakistani-held territory, the people of Kutcha Syedan have an ayatollah from Iraq to thank for the tents that have sheltered them through the Himalayan winter.
The canvas sides bear the message ''Donated by Ayatollah Sistani''.
Iraq's top Shia cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, has never visited Kashmir, but his name goes before him.
''He is our Ayatollah. He is our leader and it is his duty to look after his people, and he is doing that,'' said Zahoor Naqvi, a young jobless man, now active in relief work following the October 8 earthquake that killed 73,000 people and made more than three million homeless.
Iranian-born, but based in Iraq's holy city of Najaf, Sistani has the largest number of followers among all Shi'ite ayatollahs.
About 80 Shia families live at Kutcha Syedan, some 50 km east of Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistani Occupied Kashmir. It is one of three tent villages established in Kashmir by groups working in Sistani's name.
They are also financing the reconstruction of several mosques in the area.
Sistani patronises several leading Shia charities and provides financial support for most of the Shia religious schools or madrasas and mosques around the world.
In the camp, young boys and girls with dirty faces sat on mats reciting multiplication tables while older children had lessons inside the tents donated by Sistani's charities.
''Ours were the first schools opened in this area after the earthquake,'' Naqvi said.
Shia are a minority in Kashmir, as they are in the rest of Pakistan. Sunni Muslims form the vast majority of Pakistan's 160 million people, while Shia make up only about 15 per cent.
Since the late 1980s, Pakistani sectarian militant groups have killed thousands with bombs and in drive-by shootings, similar to the violence Iraq is suffering now on an even bigger scale.
''APOLITICAL'' Last year, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf ordered a new crackdown on sectarian militant groups, along with preachers and publications that spread hate.
So when Shia in Pakistani Occupied Kashmir protested over the February destruction of the Golden Mosque in Samarra by suspected Sunni militants linked to al Qaeda in Iraq, it was noteworthy that they were joined by the student arm of a major Sunni Muslim political party, the Jamiat Ulema-i-Pakistan.
''This was a heinous crime. It is unbearable for Shi'ites. This was done to provoke us, to stir sectarian war. But both Shi'ites and Sunnis reacted wisely and did not fall prey to this conspiracy,'' said Shi'ite cleric Ahmed Ali Saeedi. So far, the ongoing carnage in Iraq has not spilt into Pakistan's own sectarian divide, and followers of Sistani say their spiritual leader would not support such a move.
Unlike the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Sistani eschews political office for clerics. Nor does he seek political influence outside Iraq, according to his followers.
''Ayatollah Sistani is an apolitical person,'' Sheikh Mohsin Ali Najafi, a senior representative of Sistani in Pakistan, told Reuters.
Still, no Iraqi has wielded as much political clout as Sistani since the US-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein in April 2003.
''The Ayatollah is in control of politics in Iraq, but he never took part in active politics. So what politics will he do in Pakistan or Kashmir if he is not doing that in Iraq?,'' asks Najafi.
Kashmir, arguably, already suffers from a surfeit of religion in its politics.
Although the Islamist parties have never achieved significant representation in Kashmir, their support for jihadi militant groups in Jammu and Kashmir gives them greater influence.
Some Pakistani militants forged links with Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda and share a similar world view to followers of the Sunni Wahhabi ideology that sprang out of Saudi Arabia. A few also counted Shia among their enemies.
Although the Islamist parties and jihadi linked groups have been at the forefront of relief work in Kashmir, sectarian divisions appear to have been put aside.
Jamat-ud-Dawa, a charity said to be funded by Saudi money and linked to Lashkhar-e-Toiba, one of the most feared Sunni Muslim militant groups in Kashmir, said it did not discriminate when it came to providing relief to quake victims.
''It is obsolete thinking,'' said Haji Javed-ul-Hassan, head of Jamat-ud-Dawa's relief operations in Muzaffarabad.
''We have provided relief to anyone irrespective of whether he is Shia, Sunni or Christian.''