'Living saint' charged with killing 20 people at Pakistan shrine

Pakistani police vehicles carrying the custodian of a shrine charged with mass murder leave court

A man seen by devotees as a living saint has been charged with murder and terrorism after allegedly knifing and clubbing 20 worshippers to death at a Pakistani shrine, police said Monday.

Police are having to bring the case against 50-year-old Abdul Waheed and three alleged accomplices, officials said, because the victims' relatives have such "blind faith" in him that they refuse to file charges.

The slaughter took place Sunday at the Sufi Muslim shrine of Mohammad Ali, built in 2015 near the city of Sargodha in Punjab province.

Sufis believe in pirs or "living saints" who can intercede for them directly with God. Ali, the shrine's first saint, was succeeded by Waheed, the new pir, who is also the shrine's custodian.

Senior police official Malik Ghulam Abbas said it was strange that even relatives of the dead did not wish to file a complaint.

"They have such strong blind faith in their pir that they say whatever has happened, happened with the blessing of Allah," he told AFP.

Waheed told police he murdered the worshippers because he feared they might kill him one day, Arshad Abbas, an investigator in the case, told AFP.

Local police chief Shamshir Joya said they were also investigating whether a struggle for control of the shrine was an additional factor.

He said Ali's son was among those killed, as were some members of the family who own the land on which the shrine was built.

Some officials have said Waheed had mental health problems and had used violence on followers previously.

One of the accused was wounded, while the other three were remanded in custody by a local court Monday.

Police are waiting for a forensics report to determine whether the victims were given intoxicants before the gruesome killings. Some of the bodies were stripped nude.

Sufis have no hierarchy or organisation, instead seeking spiritual communion through music and dance at the shrines of the saints.

Several million Muslims in Pakistan are still believed to follow Sufism, although it has been overtaken in recent decades by more mainstream versions of the faith.

But visits to shrines and offers of alms for the poor -- and cash to custodians -- remains a very popular custom. Many believe this will help get their prayers answered.

Hardliners such as the Taliban or the Islamic State group have carried out major attacks on Sufi shrines because they consider them heretical.

In February 90 people were killed and hundreds wounded in Pakistan's southern province of Sindh, when a suicide bomber blew himself up among devotees at a Sufi shrine in an attack claimed by Islamic State.

Shrines are soft targets for attack. Often they bring together hundreds of people made ecstatic by drumming and by hashish, with little security.

In remote and rural areas they are far from medical aid.

Devotees are often impoverished and women and children are usually in attendance for the dancing and music.