Bangladesh hosts 2nd largest Muslim congregation amid unrest

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Dhaka: Tens of thousands of Muslims prayed for global peace as the first phase of world’s second largest annual Muslim congregation after Haj concluded today, defying a nationwide opposition strike that entered the fifth day amid continuing political violence that has left 11 people dead.

The three-day Biswa Ijtema drew the highest number of people, including 5,000 foreigners from 50 countries, on the last day of the first phase of congregation today.  The event was concluded with a closing prayer or “akheri munajat” by Indian cleric Maulana Saad, who prayed for the return of peace in Bangladesh and elsewhere in the world.

The second phase of Ijtema will commence after a four-day break – from January 16 and it will conclude on January 18. Since 2011, the Ijtema has been held in two phases to accommodate the large number of devotees.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina took part in the prayers from her Ganabhavan official residence, officials said.

The ijtema, staged annually by the New Delhi-based World Tablig Jamaat since 1964 in Bangladesh, draws crowds in huge number, earning the event the reputation of being the world’s second largest Muslim congregation after the Haj.

Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) earlier declined to ease its non-stop nationwide strike to facilitate the Ijtema despite its general image as a pro-Islamic party and appeals from organisers as well as the ruling Awami League of Hasina.

Headed by former prime minister Khaleda Zia, the BNP preferred to continue with massive street campaign which it launched coinciding with the first anniversary of the controversial January 5 elections which BNP had boycotted.

Zia, however, took part in the akheri munajat from her office as the TV channels broadcast live the concluding prayer of the congregation, the ex-premier’s press officials said.

“Derailments of trains in the last three days have had an impact on the service and schedule,” a railway spokesman said.

His comments came as reports about the headmaster of a government primary school in the northwestern Gaibandha succumbed to his wounds yesterday at a local hospital, raising the violence toll to 11 since January 5.