Biswa Ijtema festival

by AFP/Salim Mia, Feb 6, 2007 | Destinations: Bangladesh / Dhaka

In February 2007, two million Muslims congregated near the Bangladesh capital Dhaka for a three-day gathering billed as the second largest annual Islamic event after the hajj pilgrimage to Mecca.

From dawn, huge columns of devotees began streaming towards the gathering site on the banks of the river Turag in Tongi for the World Muslim Congregation.

Many of the pilgrims travelled by dangerously overcrowded buses and ferries and endured long delays and dense fog to reach the site from far-flung rural villages.

Dressed in traditional Islamic robes and prayer caps, they set up prayer mats beneath a canopy stretching more than a kilometre (more than half a mile) as preachers' voices resonated around the massive site via loudspeaker.

The gathering -- at which Muslims pray and listen to religious scholars -- was first held in the 1960s and was launched by Tablig Jamaat, a non-political group that urges people to follow Islam in their daily lives.

"I come here to find salvation in the next world as I cannot afford to go to Mecca for the hajj," said Abdul Latif, a 71-year-old farmer.

Businessman Ahmed Kazi, 60, said he had been coming to Tongi for more than 30 years.

"I come here every year to purify my soul and commune with Allah," he said.

Police said that two million people were on hand for the first day and that five million were expected altogether.

"We have deployed 7,000 police for security," district superintendent of police Rezaul Karim told AFP.

Hundreds of elite Rapid Action Battalion officers were also deployed to ensure security following fears that a militant group behind a deadly nationwide bombing campaign has been trying to regroup.

Bangladesh, with a population of 144 million, is the world's third-largest Muslim-majority nation.

The faithful gathering by the river said that the festival, known locally as the Biswa Ijtema, let them discover the roots of their faith.

"From the clerics, I get to know the true teachings of Islam so I can follow Islam properly and preach to others how to live the Islamic way," said Azgar Ali, a 32-year-old businessman.

The country was rocked in 2005 by a string of attacks by the militant group Jamayetul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) to impose Islamic law in the secular country.

At least 28 people died in the bombings including four suicide bombers, the first seen in the country. The attacks targeted government and judicial buildings.

Five JMB leaders who masterminded the campaign were sentenced to death last year. The executions had been scheduled for February 17 but were deferred after last-minute pleas to the president for clemency.

Although attacks stopped after the arrest of the JMB leaders, suspected militants killed a police officer and critically injured a second in a bomb attack near Dhaka on Wednesday.

Another bomb a week earlier seriously injured an officer and six others.

RAB sources have told AFP they believed JMB has been trying to regroup.

The security force last month arrested more than 20 JMB suspects and seized large quantities of explosives.

The JMB campagin began on August 17, 2005 when some 400 small bombs were detonated almost simultaneously across the country.

The attacks prompted former prime minister Khaleda Zia to admit her government had underestimated the threat from religious zealots who she vowed to root out and punish.

* * * * *