No cause of death has been announced for the 54-year-old Rizvi, who died on Thursday after suffering a high fever and difficulties breathing, and no Covid-19 test or autopsy were conducted on the long-time wheelchair user.

Activists and supporters of Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) gather for the funeral prayer of Khadim Hussain Rizvi, founder of TLP, in Lahore on November 21, 2020. / AFP / Arif ALI
Activists and supporters of Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) gather for the funeral prayer of Khadim Hussain Rizvi, founder of TLP, in Lahore on November 21, 2020. / AFP / Arif ALI (AFP)

Tens of thousands of men have gathered in Lahore for the funeral of hardline Pakistani cleric Khadim Hussain Rizvi, with the mourners for the most part flouting mask-wearing rules even with the country on the cusp of a second wave of the coronavirus outbreak.

Vast crowds of men were seen thronging the centre of the eastern city ahead of Rizvi's funeral on Saturday, chanting in unison.

His death came just days after he led a paralysing anti-France rally in Islamabad, threatening to repeat a 2017 blockade that crippled the capital, and he has called for the nuclear destruction of some European countries. 

No cause of death has been announced for the 54-year-old Rizvi, who died Thursday after suffering a high fever and difficulties breathing, and no Covid-19 test or autopsy were conducted on the long-time wheelchair user.

While Pakistan has dodged the worst of the coronavirus pandemic so far, case numbers have been rising sharply in recent weeks.

In life, Rizvi acted as a lightning rod for Pakistan's religious right, and was adept at stirring sectarian resentments and mobilising thousands of supporters at a moment's notice.

(File Photo) Pakistani radical cleric Khadim Hussain Rizvi addresses a rally against India in Lahore, Pakistan, Friday, Aug. 9, 2019. Thousands of activists held peaceful rallies across Pakistan to condemn India and its decisions on Kashmir.
(File Photo) Pakistani radical cleric Khadim Hussain Rizvi addresses a rally against India in Lahore, Pakistan, Friday, Aug. 9, 2019. Thousands of activists held peaceful rallies across Pakistan to condemn India and its decisions on Kashmir. (Reuters)

Pakistan's military hailed him as a "great scholar" and Prime Minister Imran Khan rushed to offer his heartfelt condolences.

Rizvi had championed the cause of the ultra-sensitive issue of blasphemy in the Muslim-majority nation and gaining influence over large swathes of Punjab, opening a new chapter in Pakistan's confrontation with extremism.

READ MORE: The rise of the new cleric in Pakistan

In just a few years, the cleric, known for his profanity-laced speeches and theatrical gestures, gained mass support and rose to become one of the country's most feared figures. He was among the few political and religious leader who often speak against the country's military establishment. 

"In some ways, he was even more dangerous than the Taliban, with his supporters not limited to remote tribal areas, but present in large numbers in the country's heartlands," said Omar Waraich from Amnesty International.

"(Rizvi) figured out that in Pakistan, true power can be commanded in the streets, where you don't need the highest number of votes -- just the highest number of armed supporters."

READ MORE: Pakistan arrests cleric whose followers shut down cities over blasphemy

His Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan party (TLP) held a three-day anti-France rally that ended after he claimed to have forced the government to agree to kick out the French ambassador.

The protests came weeks after France's President Emmanuel Macron defended the country's freedom of speech laws, in the wake of the killing of a teacher who had shown caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed to his class.

The Pakistani government and French embassy have refused to comment on the matter.

Spike in Covid-19 spread

The massive funeral gathering comes amid a second wave of Covid-19 in the country that saw a four-month high of new cases and deaths related to the virus.

The government had earlier this week banned all political gatherings in view of the surging outbreak, a move that opposition parties reportedly had said was meant to curb their political activities.

Khan accused the opposition parties of "playing with people's safety."

Pakistan was one of the countries where coronavirus cases started to significantly drop in mid-July.

The single-day tally that once hit nearly 7,000 plunged to 264 on August 30, prompting the government to completely ease the months-long lockdown. The daily death toll also fell to a single digit.

Cases and fatalities have started to rise following the reopening of schools, cinemas, and other entertainment venues, in addition to the lifting of a ban on big weddings in September.

Authorities, in an attempt to contain the fresh wave of infections, has re-imposed “smart” lockdown restrictions, including a ban on political rallies, and indoor weddings and public gatherings, in addition to closure of cinemas and theaters.

The government is also considering announcing winter vacations in educational institutes before the schedule.

Prime Minister Imran Khan, though, has rejected the possibility of returning to a complete lockdown, insisting it would ruin Pakistan’s already tottering economy.

Source: TRTWorld and agencies