The Foreign Office (FO) on Monday expressed its disappointment at India's failure to issue visas to 503 Pakistani pilgrims wanting to participate in the annual Urs of Sufi saint Khawaja Moinuddin Chishti in Ajmer, India.
The pilgrims had wanted to travel to India between March 19 and 29, an FO statement said, adding that the visit was to take place under the 1974 Pakistan-India Protocol on Visits to Religious Shrines.
The statement recalled that "192 Pakistani zaireen could not participate in the Urs of Hazrat Khawaja Nizamuddin Aulia" in January, also because of non-issuance of visas by India.
"Despite Pakistan's offer to send a special train, Indian delays had resulted in Sikh yatrees (pilgrims) from India being unable to participate in the Martyrdom Anniversary of Guru Arjan Dev and the death anniversary of Maharaja Ranjit Singh," the FO noted.
It further stated that another 173 Katas Raj pilgrims had been unable to visit Pakistan because the Ministry of External Affairs of India did not issue them a clearance.
"Besides being violative of the bilateral protocol of 1974 and the basic human right to religious freedom, such measures also undermine the efforts aimed at improving the environment, increasing people-to-people contacts and normalising relations between the two countries."
"It is again ironic that this was done on the occasion of the Urs of Hazrat Khawaja Moinuddin Chishti, who has for centuries been a symbol of bringing communities closer to each other," the statement noted.
With important religious sites of Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims located on both sides of the heavily militarised Indo-Pak border, the two neighbouring countries have traditionally allowed religious pilgrims to make their spiritual journeys to the other side. However, worsening relations have meant these travels have been more difficult for prospective pilgrims in recent times.
The shrine of Chishti ─ considered to be among the holiest Muslim shrines in India ─ holds great significance for the followers of the 12th century saint residing in Pakistan. Former president Asif Ali Zardari had donated a million dollars to the shrine on behalf of the people and the government of Pakistan upon his visit to Ajmer in 2012.
Every year, around 500 Pakistani devotees attend the Urs of the saint ─ also known as ‘Gharib Nawaz', or the patron of the poor ─ who introduced the Afghan-origin Chishti order, which preaches love and tolerance, to Punjab and Rajasthan.