The assassination of a renowned religious scholar last week in the southern port city of Karachi is part of a fresh ploy to stoke the Shia-Sunni divide in Pakistan, say local experts.
In the latest of a string of targeted attacks, Maulana Adil Khan, a renowned Sunni scholar and head of one of the largest seminaries in the country, was gunned down by unidentified assailants on a busy street in the city's eastern district Saturday, triggering fears of a fresh flare-up in otherwise dissipating sectarian violence in Sunni Pakistan.
Khan's assassination coincides with an already tense atmosphere that developed after provocative speeches by some Shia scholars during processions last month marking Muharram, prompting some Sunni groups to pay them back.
Mainstream Sunni and Shia scholars and groups, however, distanced themselves from the provocation, terming it another “conspiracy" to trigger sectarian violence.
Security agencies are still groping in the dark in search of clues that might identify the assassins.
The South Asian country has a long history of Shia-Sunni conflict involving violence and assassinations. Many religious scholars from both sects, including Maulana Yousaf Ludhyanvi, Mufti Nizamuddin Shamzai, Mufti Jameel Ahmed Khan, Allama Hassan Turabi, Allama Aftab Haider Jafri and Allama Hadi Taqvi have been assassinated, mainly over the past two decades. Shias make up roughly 10% of Pakistan's population of over 220 million.
Some analysts see the latest move to refuel sectarian tensions as another reflection of a proxy war between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran that spilled over Pakistan's borders in the late 1970s following the Iranian revolution.
"There has been a deliberate attempt for quite some time to bring Pakistan back to where it was some decades ago by pitting Shias and Sunnis against each other," Lt Gen.(Retd) Talat Masood, an Islamabad-based security analyst, told Anadolu Agency.
Riyadh and Tehran, he said, had long been patronizing and funding several far-right groups which were involved in sectarian violence in Pakistan.
"Both sides [Saudi Arabia and Iran] have their proxies here whom they are funding and supporting. But in the end, Pakistan suffers," Masood, who served in the Pakistani army from 1950 to 1990, went on to argue.
The proxy war, he observed, had not even benefitted Tehran and Riyadh, which "have got nothing out of it except for further stoking the sectarian divide in the region and ultimately indirectly benefitting Israel."
Supporting Masood's views, Abdul Khalique Ali, a Karachi-based political analyst, sees a deliberate campaign by the hardline groups to inflame Shia-Sunni tensions.
"Things in terms of sectarian harmony have improved to a great extent in the near past [in Pakistan], except for targeted attacks on scholars and influential persons from both sides. There has been no public clash between the two sects in the close past," he said.
"But for the past few months, it seems clearly that something is brewing.”
Prime Minister Imran Khan was quick to accuse longtime rival India of being involved in the assassination of Shia and Sunni scholars to fan the sectarian divide in Pakistan.
In a Twitter post hours after Maulana Adil Khan’s assassination, the premier said: "Condemnable targeted killing of Maulana Adil of Jamia Farooqia in Karachi this evening. My government has known, and I have repeatedly stated this on TV, since last 3 months India’s attempts to target kill alims [clerics] from Sunni & Shia sects to create sectarian conflict across the country."
Analysts, however, partially support Khan's accusations.
"Indian and Israeli intelligence agencies might be supporting the elements involved in sectarian violence, but this is not the primary problem," Masood said.
"There are several other fault lines which need to be checked and addressed by our government and the security forces, " he said. “Primarily, it is our own challenge which we have to live up to."
"We must not turn a blind eye to the real causes behind sectarian tensions by simply heaping the blame on India alone," he maintained.
Ali sees a link between ongoing Afghanistan peace talks and the recent sectarian tensions.
"If you look at the events and their timings, they clearly coincide with the crucial phase of the reconciliation process in Afghanistan," he said.
If the reconciliation process succeeds, he added, Pakistan will be the second beneficiary after Afghanistan.
"But the spoilers in the Afghan and Indian intelligence agencies have become active to derail the process by targeting those scholars who have any kind of links with the Afghan Taliban," he said, referring to reports that Maulana Adil Khan and his late father Maulana Saleemullah Khan had taught several Taliban leaders in their seminary Jamia Farooqia Karachi.
Sabir Karbalai, secretary general of Palestine Foundation Pakistan, associates the fresh campaign to ignite sectarian tensions with the latest developments in the Middle East.
According to him, the motive behind the move is to divert attention from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain's recognition of Israel.
"Pakistan is one of the few countries that has strongly reacted to the normalization of ties with the Zionist state by some Arab countries," he said while speaking to Anadolu Agency.
Holding a "nexus" of Israel, India and America behind the latest move, Karbalai said the Zionist state and their "cronies" in the region would be the real beneficiaries of the Shia-Sunni divide.
"First, they got killed a number of Shia scholars to pit Shias against Sunnis, and now they are targeting Sunnis to pitch them against Shias," he said. "But they will not succeed this time because the people of Pakistan have understood the motives behind this campaign."
Disagreeing with Karbalai, Masood said there was no concrete evidence to prove the contention.
"This impression is being created because the Middle East developments are going in favor of Israel to counter Iran's influence. Otherwise, it [the campaign] is purely because of our own conditions and fault lines fomented by internal and external forces," he said.