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Hawk begins mission to wipe Taliban taint

Islamabad, July 15: When he crossed the Wagah border near Lahore this morning, Maulana Fazl-ur Rehman, the burly chief of the Jamiat-e-Ulema Islam, carried with him the promise of removing some clichés surrounding Pakistani clerics and helping his hosts understand their neighbours better.

Invited to visit India by the Jamiat-e-Ulema Hind, Rehman was briefed on bilateral relations by Pakistan foreign secretary Riaz Khokhar at the foreign office yesterday.

Rehman, the secretary-general of the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal that rules the North-West Frontier Province, headed Parliament’s foreign relations committee during Benazir Bhutto’s regime in the mid-1990s.

Rehman and Maulana Sami-ul Haq, head of another Jamiat faction, supported the Taliban during the mid-1990s. They joined hands to organise popular protests when the US began bombing Afghanistan in October 2001.

The Majlis-e-Amal, which gained control of Pakistan’s northwest in the October elections last year, has been accused of trying to “Talibanise” the province.

But now, the Jamiat and Islamabad are trying to mend fences and remove the stigma attached to them because of their involvement with the Taliban and Kashmir militants.

Shortly before stepping onto Indian soil along with three colleagues, Rehman said he hoped the visit would accelerate people-to-people contacts. The Jamiat and its Indian cousin are followers of the Dar-ul Uloom Deoband in India.

Before taking a flight to Lahore from Islamabad late yesterday, Rehman said: “We would like to interact with public opinion builders, religious scholars and members of the ruling and Opposition parties in India.”

He said the programme would be decided by Maulana Asad Madani, who heads the Jamiat-e-Ulema Hind.

Rehman, who arrived in Amritsar this afternoon, is heading for Deoband in Uttar Pradesh and may visit Sirhind in Punjab along the way. Pakistan high commission officials were unable to provide details. The Jamiat leader is expected to arrive in Delhi on Thursday and will remain there till Sunday. On Friday, Madani has organised a reception-cum-dinner for his guests.

Rehman is expected to meet Muslim leaders, opinion makers, scholars and some government officials while in Delhi.

“We hope this goodwill visit will help remove misconceptions about us and Pakistan,” the leader said. “The impression that religious parties only fuel sectarian and religious violence will surely vanish with the delegation’s visit…” he said.

Rehman said his delegation was setting out with a message that Pakistan wants to improve relations. “We want to look ahead rather than keep peeping into a bitter past,” he said.

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