Tens of thousands of Sufis descended on the Bangladeshi capital Friday in a defiant show of unity, following a spate of targeted killings of members of the Muslim minority by suspected militants. Braving a scorching sun, the followers of a top Sufi leader gathered in the streets near Dhaka's main commercial district as speakers exhorted tolerance for other Muslims and members of different faiths. Sufism is a belief within mainstream Islam whose followers are often denounced as "infidels" in Bangladesh by Salafis for their mystical traditions, including worshipping at shrines. "If anyone does good work and has faith in the God, he'll be blessed by Him. It does not matter whether he's a Muslim, Jew or a Christian," Mohiuddin Khan Faruqi, one of the speakers said.
Many followers had travelled from remote parts of the country to join the gathering, with police saying about 30,000 people took part and organizers putting attendance at a couple of hundred thousand. Security was tight as police vans patrolled the streets and organizers set up nearly a dozen check-posts to search people who entered the venue. Fourteen Sufis have been murdered since December 2013 in religiously motivated attacks. "I've heard militants have killed Sufi leaders. But I am not afraid," said Azizul Haq, 55, a farmer, who travelled from a town located 150 kilometers (95 miles) north of Dhaka. "By following Sufism, I've become a good human being. Sufism is the rightful path," he said.
The Sufi leader, Hazrat Dewanbagi, was scheduled to address and lead the congregation after the Friday prayers from his home, which was to be shown on a giant screen as part of stepped-up security measures. Abul Kalam Azad, a spokesman for the Sufi congregation, told AFP that the extra security was due to "the recent attacks" on minorities by extremists. Salafis have claimed responsibility for around 40 killings in the last three years of foreigners, secular bloggers and some activists, Hindus and Christians and Sufis. Many have been slaughtered with machetes. Most have been claimed by the likes of homegrown Jamayetul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) or international militants such as DAESH or al-Qaida's South Asia wing. Police have blamed the JMB, a banned militant group founded by Afghan-trained extremists, for most of the attacks, but rejected the assertion that DAESH or al-Qaida has any presence in Bangladesh.