Signs of the heavy fighting at the Red Mosque in 2007 are still evident
By M Ilyas Khan
BBC News, Islamabad
Two years after it sparked a violent campaign of suicide bombings across north-western Pakistan, the Red Mosque in the country's capital, Islamabad, is again alive with chants of victory for Islam.
On Friday, thousands of worshippers filled the sprawling Red Mosque compound and spilled onto the street outside to listen to the sermon by the mosque's chief cleric, Maulana Abdul Aziz, who was released from jail the previous night.
Many had come to hear him lay bare his future plans, but in this at least they were disappointed. He told his supporters to wait for a few days.
Others were there just to catch a glimpse of him.
Maulana Aziz's charged disciples marked his arrival at the pulpit with hymns praising the sacrifices of his family in fuelling the movement for Sharia law in the country.
Maulana Aziz's audience scrabbled over the mosque's wall to hear him
His sermon was woven around the Islamic concept of sacrifice.
"Believe this, the more sacrifices we make, the further our religion will spread," he said to a solemnly attentive crowd.
"The implementation of Islam in Swat and the tribal areas was made possible due to the sacrifices we rendered here."
More than 100 people were killed by the security forces during a 10-day siege of the Red Mosque in the summer of 2007.
They included Maulana Aziz's brother, Abdur Rashid, who was deputy cleric of the mosque, his mother and his son.
Religious circles claim others killed were male and female students of religious seminaries, but authorities say most of them were battle-hardened militants.
More than a dozen security troops were also killed during the siege, including an officer of the elite Special Service Group (SSG).
Maulana Aziz himself tried to escape a day before the final assault on the mosque, posing as a woman, but was caught.
Maulana Abdul Aziz uged his followers to adopt a 'spirit of sacrifice'
He was put on trial in 27 different cases of murder, abduction and forceful occupation of property, but was granted bail in all the cases one by one, paving the way for his release on Thursday.
"For two years I've been waiting to hear Maulana Aziz's sermon," says Sahibzada Mohammad Yousuf, a worshipper from the central Punjab town of Faisalabad, some 300km (186 miles) south-east of Islamabad.
"When the court ordered his release on Wednesday, I knew he would lead the Friday prayers at Red Mosque, so I set off for Islamabad where one of my sons lives."
Mohammad Akram (not his real name) from Mansehra, another town some 250km (155 miles) north-west of here, says he works nearby and dropped in to see what the maulana looked like.
"I was wondering what kind of a man would claim to fight for Islam and then try to escape in a burka [a head-to-toe gown with a veil worn by women]," he said after making me promise I would not use his real name or print his photo.
But Maulana Aziz's disciples were jubilant to have him back again, and chanted emotional slogans when he said that the Islamic system was not only the destiny of Pakistan, but of the entire world.
"God has promised that, and He will make it happen, but we must make sacrifices for it to happen faster," he said.
Then he asked the congregation whether they were ready for the Islamic system, whether they were ready to go to jail for it, or to sacrifice their lives for it?
To each question, the congregation answered, "Inshallah, God willing".
Devotees pledged to spread Islam around the world
The atmosphere was eerily reminiscent of the pre-siege days when burka-clad female students of a seminary adjacent to the mosque, helped by male students of another seminary, started operating as a moral brigade in Islamabad.
As the government tried to contain their activities, the students embarrassed it by kidnapping Chinese nationals who were running a massage parlour in town.
They also kidnapped several policemen who had set up pickets around the mosque to contain their activities, and a woman for alleged prostitution.
The scars of the operation that followed are still visible.
A children's library - which the clerics of the mosque had forcefully annexed - and the women's seminary, Jamia Hafsa, which officials say was also built on illegally occupied land next to the mosque, have been razed to the ground.
The mosque itself is far from having been fully repaired. Bullet holes are still visible on some walls, and the bullet-riddled ruins of a car and a van still lie in its compound.
Will the return of Maulana Aziz lead to another bout of lawlessness in Islamabad?
The city is home to more than 500 seminaries in which thousands of students study religion.
Some of them undoubtedly are sympathetic to radical messages emanating from the Red Mosque and pleased with developments elsewhere in the country, such as the introduction of an Islamic justice system in the north-western district of Swat.
The big question now is whether Friday's "calibrated lawlessness" in the Red Mosque will cross the red line as it did back in 2007 and result in extreme violence.
The residents of Islamabad will be keeping their fingers crossed that this will not happen.