LAHORE, Pakistan (Reuters) – Tens of thousands of mourners attended the funeral of a hardline Pakistani cleric in the eastern city of Lahore on Saturday, defying a government ban on large public gatherings in the wake of rising COVID-19 cases in the country.
Khadim Hussain Rizvi, 54, died of cardiac arrest on Thursday, just days after leading a violent protest march to the capital, Islamabad, against the publication in France of cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad.
Daily coronavirus infections have risen in Pakistan this month, and the government banned big events and meetings as it declared the country was witnessing a “second wave” after a three-month lull in cases.
Official data released on Saturday showed 2,843 people had tested positive for the virus and 42 had died during the last 24 hours – both figures the highest for a day since July.
Despite the coronavirus curbs, tens of thousands turned out to mourn Rizvi, and organisers of the funeral said the government had not told them to limit the gathering.
Government officials did not respond to a request for comment about the funeral, which wreaked havoc in Lahore as cellphone services were shut down and major roads blocked for security reasons.
A local official, who asked not to be named, said he estimated that close to 200,000 people had attended the event.
The gathering was so large that Rizvi’s coffin could not be carried through the crowd to the site set up for the ceremony, and had to be positioned on a nearby bridge for the prayers, a Reuters journalist said.
Known for his fiery sermons, Rizvi headed the Tehrik-i-Labaik Pakistan (TLP) party, which has made denouncing alleged blasphemy its rallying cry and staged several protests in recent years – pressuring the government on a number of issues.
Earlier this month, the cleric led a march joined by thousands of protesters to Islamabad that blocked a main entry road for hours and saw demonstrators clash with police.
(Writing and additional reporting by Gibran Peshimam; Editing by Helen Popper)