Khadim Hussain Rizvi: thousands gather for funeral of controversial cleric

Ignoring the risks of Covid-19, Lahore grinds to a halt to mourn a preacher able to paralyse government at the drop of a hat

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Tens of thousands of people have ignored Covid-19 restrictions and gathered for the funeral prayers of a firebrand cleric whose anti-blasphemy movement has struck fear into Pakistan's governments.

Khadim Hussain Rizvi died only days after paralysing the capital, Islamabad, with a sit-in to demand the expulsion of the French ambassador in the row over the Prophet Mohammed cartoons.

The vast gathering of his supporters on Saturday brought sections of Lahore to a standstill and appeared to be one of the biggest crowds ever seen in the Punjab city of more than 11 million people. Local observers estimated attendance could have run to several hundred thousand.

The scale of the gathering underlined the massive public support enjoyed by his hardline religious party, but also risked becoming a super-spreader event for the coronavirus, doctors warned.

Crowds massed in proximity, with few people wearing masks, as the country is battling a skyrocketing second wave of coronavirus cases.

Rizvi complained of difficulty breathing and fever for several days before dying on November 19, his aides said, but it was unclear if he had contracted Covid-19.

The 54-year-old had risen to prominence after the Asia Bibi trial, campaigning against attempts to reform Pakistan's strict blasphemy laws and demanding that she hang. His Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) party also glorified Mumtaz Qadri, who was executed for killing the Punjab governor who wanted to help Ms Bibi.

The rallying call to defend the Prophet Mohammed's honour won huge support and the TLP quickly became notorious for its ability to hold the government to ransom by mobilising street protests.

It blocked a major Islamabad intersection for three weeks in 2017 calling for the sacking of the then law minister for omitting a reference to the Prophet Mohammed in a new version of the electoral oath. The minister was eventually removed. The TLP also brought much of the country to a standstill after Ms Bibi was acquitted in 2018. Its protesters blocked major roads, called for the deaths of the judges who quashed Ms Bibi's conviction and asked soldiers to mutiny against the army. Rizvi's rally earlier this month ended when the government agreed to put the expulsion of the French envoy to a decision by parliament.

Mohammad Amir Rana, director of the Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies, said the crowds at Rizvi's funeral were not surprising. “He had already expanded his support base and he has a huge following,” he said. “Due to his personal charisma and his one slogan narrative he was able to mobilise people.”

He said the movement will likely maintain significant influence, even after Rizvi’s death.

“It has exploited the issues of blasphemy and the honour of the Prophet and these are very close to the hearts of the people,” Mr Rana said.

Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia Programme at the US-based Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars, added: “The TLP will survive without Khadim Rizvi. Its support base is genuine, not manufactured. That said, the succession process shall be interesting, and perhaps fraught as well.”

Both Prime Minister Imran Khan and army staff head Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa expressed their condolences. The Dutch far-right politician Geert Wilders, whose 2018 proposal to hold a cartoon contest of the Prophet Mohammed infuriated the TLP, instead tweeted: “Good riddance!”

Pakistan's coronavirus cases hit their highest levels since early July on Friday. The country had appeared on the cusp of a runaway outbreak earlier in the summer, only for cases and deaths to fall in August and September.

The respite has led to complacency, doctors warned, and social distancing precautions are being widely ignored. Mr Khan has repeatedly said he opposes a nationwide lockdown because of the economic damage, but provinces have been locking down individual neighbourhood hotspots.

The steep climb in cases and the lack of public attention to safeguards has led some doctors to predict Pakistan's second wave will be deadlier than the first. Mass gatherings have also been held recently for political campaign rallies.

“The situation is not good,” said Dr Qaiser Sajjad, secretary general of the Pakistan Medical Association. He said wards were filling as they had in June and July and he was now regularly receiving panicked calls from people seeking care for relatives.

“I am worried that the next couple of weeks are going to be very dangerous for the people of Pakistan,” he said.