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Thousands of Pakistanis have attend the funeral of Salman Taseer, the assassinated Punjab governor, despite calls from a number of religious scholars warning against honouring him.

Yousuf Raza Gilani, Pakistan's prime minister, and several thousand supporters of the ruling Pakistan People's Party (PPP), attended funeral prayers for Taseer in Lahore, Punjab's provincial capital, on Wednesday.

Taseer's coffin, wrapped in the green and white national flag, was then flown the short distance by helicopter to a graveyard in the military cantonment in Lahore, where it was lowered into the ground by uniformed rescue workers.

The outspoken Punjab governor was gunned down in broad daylight at an Islamabad shopping district on Tuesday, apparently by a member of his own security detail.

His killing, the country's most high-profile assassination in three years, horrified Pakistan's liberals, but on Wednesday a statement from the Jamaat-e-Ahl-e-Sunnat, a Pakistan group of scholars, advised against mourning his death.

Mourners warned

"More than 500 scholars of the Jamaat-e-Ahl-e-Sunnat have advised Muslims not to offer the funeral prayers of Governor Punjab Salman Taseer nor try to lead the prayers," the group, which is considered a mainstream organisation and has been a vocal critic of Taliban fighters operating in Pakistan, said in a statement.

"Also, there should be no expression of grief or sympathy on the death of the governor, as those who support blasphemy of the Prophet are themselves indulging in blasphemy."

Taseer had been a vocal critic of Pakistan's blasphemy law, which recently came under scrutiny after a Christian woman was sentenced to death for allegedly insulting the Prophet Muhammad.

Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri, the man alleged to have killed Taseer, reportedly said that he had carried out the assassination because of the Punjab governor's calls for reform of the blasphemy law.

"May the holy Prophet accept this in his service," he said in comments carried on a Pakistani television station following his arrest.

Qadri, a police commando who had been assigned to protect Taseer, was charged with murder on Wednesday, appearing before a magistrate in Islamabad.

As he travelled to court in a police van, some onlookers shouted "Allahu akbar", while others threw rose petals.

'Cycle of violence'

Investigations are now focused on whether Qadri acted alone or as part of a wider conspiracy.

"We will investigate whether it was an individual act or there is some organisation behind it," Rehman Malik, Pakistan's interior minister, said.

Qadri, who had been assigned to protect Taseer, has
been charged with the governor's murder [Reuters]

"We want to know who put his [Qadri's] name on the duty list. We know he visited the police supervisor to get his name on the list," Malik said.

The supervisor and his deputy are among more than 10 people taken into custody for interrogation, according to officials.

Asma Jahangir, a human rights lawyer in Pakistan who defended a Christian boy accused of blasphemy in the 1990s, said Taseer's killing and the response to Qadri illustrated a growing intolerance in Pakistan.

"There were lots of people today who were upset, who were chanting slogans, who were venting their anger at this brutal act of murder," she told Al Jazeera.

"But at the same time, when you watch television here, there are people who justify it.

 "I doubt that the [blasphemy] law will be repealed in an atmosphere of this nature where you cannot even discuss the law, but the question is bigger than that.

"The question is 'is Pakistan going to survive the cycle of violence that is increasing in the name of religion'?"

Human rights groups say the blasphemy law is often exploited by religious conservatives as well as ordinary people to settle personal scores.

But it has widespread support in the country and most politicians are loath to be seen as soft on the defence of Islam.

The US, which maintains a troubled security alliance with Pakistan to fight against armed groups operating in Afghanistan, said Taseer's death was a "great loss".

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies