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India-Pakistan: First pilgrims make new border crossing to Sikh temple

Pakistan and India on Saturday opened a new corridor and border crossing to help Indian followers of Sikh faith to visit one of their holiest shrines, which lies in Pakistan.

India’s state TV reported that the first few hundred pilgrims had made the journey along the secure visa-free corridor between the two nuclear foes.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi took part in an inauguration ceremony at the border post on the Indian side. In his speech, he thanked Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan for respecting Indian sentiments over access to the site.

His predecessor, Manmohan Singh, who led India for a decade from 2004, then guided the first delegation of pilgrims as they crossed into Pakistan.

Khan took part in a similar ceremony on the Pakistani side and received the pilgrims.

Read more: India: Court rules in favor of Hindus over Ayodhya temple-mosque dispute

The Shrine of Baba Guru Nanak Dev (Getty Images/AFP/A. Qureshi)

Until Saturday, the Sikh shrine has been difficult to reach

On Friday, Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi likened the opening of the corridor to the fall of the Berlin Wall, saying it could “change the face of South Asia,” in the same way that the events of 1989 had changed Europe.

Saturday’s opening comes on the 30th anniversary of Wall’s demise.

Differences put to one side

The new corridor has become a reality despite months of heightened tensions between the neighbors, mainly over the disputed region of Kashmir.

Months of clashes and tit-for-tat cross-border air raids across the frontier in February sparked fears of a wider war.

Read more: Why Kartarpur corridor is unlikely to defuse India-Pakistan tensions

The shrine to Sikhism’s founder Guru Nanak lies in Kartarpur, a small town just four kilometers (2.5 miles) into Pakistani territory.

Kartapur ended up in the Muslim-majority country following the division of India and Pakistan at the end of British colonial rule in 1947.

Indians kept out

Indians have struggled to make the pilgrimage due to longstanding hostility between the neighbors, which have fought three wars since independence.

Indian Sikh groups have long been demanding a road link and easing of travel permits.

The crossing was first proposed in 1999 but it would take two decades for the passage to be completed.

A final deal on access to the shrine was only agreed on last month.

Officials say the corridor can cope with about 5,000 pilgrims per day. But there has been Indian opposition to a sum of $20 (€18) that Pakistan will charge each visitor.

The opening took place ahead of the guru’s 550th birthday on November 12, which will be marked with celebrations by millions of Sikhs around the world.

mm/aw (AFP, dpa)

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