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10 December 2023

Thousands rally in Pakistan for blasphemy laws


Tens of thousands of demonstrators marched in Pakistan's largest city on Sunday to oppose any change to national blasphemy laws and to praise a man charged with murdering a provincial governor who had campaigned against the divisive legislation.

The rally of up to 50,000 people in downtown Karachi was one of the largest demonstrations of support for the laws, which make insulting Islam a capital offense. It was organized before the governor of Punjab province, Salman Taseer, was shot dead on Tuesday in Islamabad by a bodyguard who told a court he considered Taseer a blasphemer.

Muslim groups have praised the bodyguard, Mumtaz Qadri, and have used Taseer's death to warn others not to speak out against the much-derided laws.

The size of the Karachi rally, which was large even by the standards of the city of 16 million, showed how bitter the argument is over the decades-old laws.

Although courts typically overturn blasphemy convictions and no executions have been carried out, rights activists say the laws are used to settle rivalries and persecute religious minorities.

Amid the threats from groups defending the law, the prime minister ruled out any changes to the legislation on Sunday, even as one of his key Cabinet ministers promised reforms were still on the agenda.

"This huge rally today has categorically signaled that nobody could dare to amend the blasphemy law," said Fazlur Rehman, the key speaker at Sunday's demonstration and head of the Taliban-linked conservative religious party Jamiat Ulema Islam.

"If the rulers are out to defend Taseer, so we also have the right to legally defend Mumtaz Qadri," he told the crowd.

He said Taseer "was responsible for his own murder" because he had criticized the law.

The laws came under renewed international scrutiny late last year when a 45-year-old Christian woman, Asia Bibi, was sentenced to death for allegedly insulting Islam's prophet.

People accused of blasphemy are often killed by extremists or spend significant amounts of time behind bars. In some cases, the charges border on the ridiculous: A man was recently held because he threw away a business card of someone whose first name is Muhammad.

The Karachi rally represented all major Muslim groups and sects in Pakistan's most populous city and was one of the few to bring together moderate and conservative Muslims. Police officer Irshad Sehar estimated 40,000 to 50,000 people attended.

Many marchers waved the flags of conservative and radical Islamist parties and chanted: "Courage and bravery, Qadri, Qadri."

Many wore head and arm bands inscribed: "We are ready to sacrifice our lives for the sanctity of the prophet."

Minister for Minorities Shahbaz Bhatti said such demonstrations would not deter the government from amending the laws, which he said were being abused by Muslim extremists to victimize minorities. He warned that religious leaders who preach violence could be charged with inciting murder if the debate claims another life.

"We will not be intimidated," Bhatti told The Associated Press. "We cannot remain silent on the victimization and growing extremism."

Bhatti, a member of Pakistan's Christian minority, did not give any timeframe for changing the laws and said details on how they might be amended had yet to be discussed with interest groups.

Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani, however, later told reporters in Islamabad that his government would not tamper with the contentious legislation.

"Government doesn't have any such intention," Gilani said in response to a question about whether his government is bringing any amendment to the laws. "I have also said it before categorically."

Bhatti joined a congregation of 100 Christian worshippers in a Roman Catholic church in Islamabad on Sunday for a memorial service for Taseer. He said Islamist political parties were seeking to use the debate over the law to divide and weaken the government and distract it from its battle with extremists.

"These parties were supportive of the Taliban and al-Qaida and now they want to divert the attention of the government away from the war against terrorism," he said.

During a visit to Islamabad on Saturday, German Foreign Minister Guide Westerwelle described Taseer's murder as "a terroristic act."

"It shows us that our common engagement is necessary to fight against every terroristic attack and we very much appreciate the effort Pakistan is undertaking in the fight against terrorists," Westerwelle told reporters.

Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi declined to tell AP whether he agreed with his counterpart's assessment.

"It's very sad what happened. The matter is being investigated ... and I would not like to comment on that at this stage," Qureshi told AP.