LAHORE, Pakistan — Twenty people were tortured and then murdered with clubs and knives at a Pakistani Sufi shrine, police said Sunday, in what officials are calling a cult ritual.
Six women are among the dead and four other people were wounded during the attack on Sunday morning at the shrine on the edge of Sargodha, a remote town in the Punjab region, police said.
The killings were purportedly carried out by the shrine's custodian and several accomplices, senior police official Jamshed Ahmad told NBC News.
With its ancient hypnotic rituals, Sufism is a mystical form of Islam that has been practiced in Pakistan for centuries.
Ahmad said police raided the shrine and captured six people including the custodian, who has been identified as Abdul Waheed, 50.
He said police came to know about what he described as a "brutal killing" when one of the injured managed to reach a nearby hospital.
"The custodian called his faithful one by one to a room where he killed them using daggers and sticks," Ahmad said.
Nineteen people died inside the shrine and one woman died later at hospital, Ahmad added.
Police said they were currently investigating the incident and trying to ascertain the perpetrators' motives.
Liaquat Ali Chatta, government administrator of the area, told the Associated Press the custodian was allegedly in the practice of "beating and torturing" devotees to "cleanse" them and said Waheed had confessed to the murders.
Rana Sanaullah, the law minister for the Punjab provincial government, said an initial investigation showed that Waheed had a collection of followers who would regularly visit the shrine and face torture in the name of religious cleansing.
The shrine was built about two years ago on the grave of local religious leader Ali Mohamamd Gujjar. Shamsher Joya, a local police officer, said Waheed would come to the shrine twice a week from Lahore, and his followers would submit to "beating and torturing with a red hot iron rod."
Pervaiz Haider, a doctor in a Sargodha hospital, said most of the dead were hit on the back of the neck."There are bruises and wounds inflicted by a club and dagger on the bodies of victims," he told Reuters.
Zulfiqar Hameed, Regional Police Officer for Sargodha, said that during his interrogation, Waheed had told police he believed his victims were out to kill him.
"Waheed told police that he killed the people because they had tried to kill him by poisoning him in the past, and again they were there to kill him," Hameed told Reuters.
Reuters could not immediately find contact details for Waheed or any lawyer representing him.
In recent months, Sufi shrines have been targeted by extremist Sunni militants who consider them heretics, including a suicide bombing by Islamic State that killed more than 80 worshipers at a shrine in Lal Shahbaz Qalandar shrine in southern Sindh province.
Last November, an explosion ripped through another Sufi shrine, the Shah Noorani in southwestern Pakistan, killing at least 52 people. Islamic State also claimed responsibility for that attack.