A Pakistani Muslim spiritual leader known as the “father of the Taliban” was killed Friday evening by a knife-wielding assailant who sneaked into his bedroom, officials said, further roiling the country’s combustible religious tensions. The leader, Maulana Sami ul-Haq, 81, exerted an overarching influence over the Taliban movement in neighbouring Afghanistan and within Pakistan and led his own faction of a religious party, Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam.
“He has been stabbed to death,” said Fawad Chaudhry, the countrys information minister.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility, and the circumstances of the killing were unusual. Haq was resting at home in the city of Rawalpindi adjacent to Islamabad when he was stabbed.
Police officials said an unidentified assailant entered the house while Haqs personal staff members were at a nearby market. They said the attacker went into Haqs bedroom, stabbed him in the chest and shoulder multiple times and left.
The religious leader was rushed to a hospital when his personal staff returned, but doctors said he died from blood loss. Police detained his driver and personal assistant for questioning.
“We dont blame anyone at this moment, but he was on the hit list of enemies of Islam,” Syed Yousaf Shah, a senior leader and spokesman of Haqs party, said by phone. “The motive for killing him and who is behind it is being investigated.”
The killing jolted Pakistan just as the government was grappling with protests by religious hard-liners after the countrys Supreme Court acquitted a Pakistani Christian woman on charges of blasphemy, a capital crime here.
The government reached a truce Friday night with Islamist leaders enraged over the acquittal of the woman, Asia Bibi, in what appeared to be a victory for the religious right.
In a return for the end of the protests, officials agreed not to oppose a further appeal of the acquittal and said it would take steps to prevent Bibi from leaving the country. Several Western countries have offered her asylum.
Prime Minister Imran Khan of Pakistan, who has been visiting China seeking financial aid, condemned the killing of Haq, saying his country was now “bereft of a great religious scholar and renowned political leader.”
Khan ordered an immediate inquiry into the killing, saying Haqs religious and political contributions to Pakistan “would be remembered forever.”
Haq ran a seminary, Darul Uloom Haqqania, in the town of Akora Khattak in the north-western Khyber-Pakhthunkhwa province. A large number of Taliban leaders attended the seminary, including the founder of the Taliban, Mullah Mohammad Omar. Haq used to boast about such famous alumni.
The students had always hailed Haq as the “father of the Taliban.” Haq took pride in the title and was quoted as saying that in local tradition, a teacher is like a father, a spiritual leader.
“We strongly condemn the martyrdom of senior Islamic and jihadi leader, Mualana Sami ul-Haq,” Muhammad Khurrasni, a spokesman of the Pakistani Taliban, said by phone Friday evening. “His death is a great loss for the entire Muslim nation.”
Haq was politically active and served two terms as a senator in his long career. He was known to have good ties with the countrys security establishment.
Last month, an Afghan delegation met with Haq and asked him to play a mediating role in peace talks with the Taliban. Haq agreed to play a part but accused the United States and other international powers of obstructing peace efforts in Afghanistan.
Haq was a fervent supporter of the Afghan struggle against the Soviets in the 1980s and later supported the Taliban movement. He was vocal about his anti-American beliefs and said the presence of US troops inside Afghanistan had only prolonged the turmoil there.
Analysts said the killing of Haq was more likely to affect Pakistans internal politics than the effort to revive peace talks in Afghanistan.
His seminary, spread over several acres, has received financial support from successive Pakistani governments. Khan, the prime minister, often praised Haq for his support in the polio eradication campaign in the north-western province and in tribal regions.
Haq acted as one of the representatives of the Pakistani Taliban in 2014 when the government held peace talks with the militants. The talks eventually collapsed, and a military operation was undertaken against the militants.