Security was tight Friday in Bangladesh as hundreds of thousands of people gathered for a Muslim gathering rivalling the Hajj in Mecca for size.
The Biswa Ijtema, or the World Congregation, draws up to three million Muslims from Bangladesh and abroad on the banks of the river Turag at the factory town of Tongi.
The annual gathering, which takes place some 25 kilometres (15 miles) north of Dhaka, was launched by the Tablig Jamaat group in 1964.
However, tension has been running high ahead of this year’s four-day event after violent clashes between two Bangladeshi rival factions left one person dead and dozens injured in December.
The congregation, which is normally held in January, was postponed following the violence, prompting Bangladesh authorities to hold several rounds of meetings with rival factions to broker peace.
Police said they would deploy hundreds of officers including many in plainclothes at the congregation ground to prevent any repeat of the clashes.
“We have adequate preparations to make the congregation peaceful,” Benazir Ahmed, head of elite police unit, told reporters on Thursday.
Ahmed urged the two factions to “forget division and dispute”, warning that any “accident” in the congregation could turn “dangerous” due to the size of the crowd.
Bangladesh’s home minister Asaduzzaman Khan has also warned against any “incendiary statements” on social media during the gathering.
A spokesman for the Tablig said “hundreds of thousands” of Muslims have already joined the congregation, which will continue to February 18 with each of the two factions holding the gathering for two days.
“The congregation ground has already been filled up. People have also thronged on the nearby roads,” Jahir Ibne Muslim told AFP.
Ibne Muslim said the division in the Tablig occurred last year over a Delhi-based Islamic cleric, Saad Kandhalvi, whose great grandfather founded the non-political group that urges people to follow the tenets of Islam in their daily lives.
While one faction believes Kandhalvi is the rightful claimant of the global leadership of the movement, its rival group, which is backed by a hardline Bangladeshi Muslim outfit, strongly opposes him, saying he misinterprets some parts of the Koran and the traditions of the prophet Mohammed, he said.
Bangladesh, the world’s eighth-most populous country, is home to the world’s fourth-highest number of Muslims. Ninety percent of the 165 million population are Muslims.
Most of those who attend the Ijtema are from rural areas of Bangladesh although the event also draws thousands from Muslim countries in North Africa, Central Asia and even China.
The event has been dubbed a mini-Hajj, especially by the poor Bangladeshi Muslims who cannot afford a plane ticket to Mecca in Saudi Arabia, where more than two million attended the Hajj in 2018.