ANGER over the Hindu destruction of a Muslim mosque in Ayodhya, India, is prompting sectarian strife in the neighboring countries of Pakistan and Bangladesh.
Nawaz Sharif, Pakistan's premier, told reporters Dec. 8 that he would call an all-party conference Dec. 10 so his country could come to a unified stand on India's handling of the Ayodhya crisis. In what officials said was an attempt to prevent religious leaders from taking control of the issue, Mr. Sharif earlier called a national strike Dec. 8 to protest the mosque demolition.
Protesters joined processions and special prayers were held in a large number of mosques, where clergymen condemned India's handling of a crisis that has brought Muslims and Hindus close to sectarian war.
But in spite of Sharif's efforts, Muslim demonstrators have tried to destroy at least five Hindu temples in larger cities and a total of 30 temples across Pakistan, most of them abandoned. Nine Pakistanis have been killed in the rioting, police said.
Security has been tightened around the Indian Embassy in Islamabad, where police fired tear gas to hold back protesters. Police forces were also ordered to protect Hindu temples, especially in the southern province of Sindh, which borders India and is considered to be home for most of the country's tiny Hindu minority. Hindus make up less than 1 percent of Pakistan's 117 million population.
In Dhaka, Bangladesh, protesters surrounded the Indian Embassy and hundreds of people were reported injured as police sought to protect Hindu temples.
Thousands of Hindu revivalists destroyed a 16th-century mosque in the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh on Dec. 6. Hindus say the mosque, which was named after the Indian Muslim Mogul Emperor Babar, stands at the birthplace of the Hindu god Ram.
"This abhorrent act of extreme fanaticism deserves to be strongly condemned by ... those [who] oppose religious intolerance and extremism, and uphold human rights," Sharif said.
In addition to a formal protest to the Indian government conveyed to the Indian ambassador in Islamabad, the Pakistani government has also appealed to the United Nations and the Organization of the Islamic Conference to "exert their influence and impress upon India the need to protect the rights of the Indian Muslims and their places of worship."
The government-led strike was an attempt to prevent clergymen from taking control of the demonstrations and urging the protesters into violence, senior officials say.
During the Gulf war last year, thousands turned out at the call of religious leaders to protest against Western troops' presence in what Muslims regard as the holy lands of Saudi Arabia.
"That has only driven home the lesson that the government should take charge early on rather than letting others do so," a senior Pakistani official said on condition of anonymity.
Yet the government-backed reaction could also speed a downward slide in relations with India. Sharif was due to meet with Indian Prime Minister P. V. Narasimha Rao at the annual seven-nation South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summit in Dhaka on Dec. 12. Pakistan had recently advised its citizens not to travel to India after two Pakistanis, accused by the Indian government of espionage, were shot dead by security forces.
Another Pakistani working at his country's embassy in New Delhi was allegedly beaten up by Indian security men.
Events since the demolition of the mosque in Ayodhya led some to question whether the SAARC summit would be held at all. If the crisis in India is prolonged, Prime Minister Rao may not be able to leave New Delhi. And with reports of anti-India demonstrations in Bangladesh, the security of visiting dignitaries would be hard to guarantee.
Pakistani provincial governments also joined the federal government in their protest. In Peshawar, capital of the North Western Frontier Province, provincial Chief Minister Mir Afzal Khan, wearing a black arm-band as a mark of mourning, led a public demonstration through downtown streets.