Islamabad and Tehran are considering starting airline flights for pilgrims who visit holy shrines in Iran in the wake of the attack on 29 Shia pilgrims in Mastung, Balochistan, officials said.
The move came after Iran reacted to the Mastung incident by shutting down the trade gate at the Pakistan border.
A delegation headed by Qazi Asghar, representative of the Wali-e-Faqih (Religious Guardian) at Hajj and Pilgrimage Affairs department in Iran will meet parliamentarians in Islamabad on Monday. Pakistan’s Religious Affairs Minister Khurshid Shah will brief the delegation on rising security worries for pilgrims in the region. Officials from both sides are hopeful this meeting will pave the way for a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between the two countries modelled on the one Pakistan and India have for the security of visitors.
Officials at the Ministry of Religious Affairs told The Express Tribune that Pakistan and India signed five MoUs some years back to ensure safety of pilgrims. However, Islamabad and Tehran have no such agreement, they said.
“Airline services will restore the confidence of pilgrims,” said MNA Syed Imran, who is a member of the National Assembly Standing Committee on Religious Affairs, which will brief the Iranian delegation on Monday.
Iranian officials in Islamabad told The Express Tribune that Tehran is deeply concerned by rising ethnic violence on the border areas. The Iranian interior minister is visiting Islamabad this week to chalk out a strategy for greater security cooperation in border areas, a senior official of the Iranian Embassy said.
Meanwhile, President Asif Ali Zardari has also directed Interior Minister Rehman Malik to ensure the security of visitors travelling on routes leading to Iran in Balochistan. He also directed Malik to personally supervise the investigation into the Mastung incident.
Around 0.12 million Pakistani pilgrims visit Iran and Iraq’s holy shrines annually. These pilgrims rarely get official permits from the Foreign Office or the relevant embassies in Pakistan, according to religious affairs ministry officials.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 26th, 2011.