Pakistan rally backs blasphemy law

Demonstration in Karachi against possible changes to controversial legislation draws tens of thousands of people.

blasphemy rally
Protesters hold a placard with the image of the guard arrested for the killing of the governor of Punjab [Reuters]

Tens of thousands of people have rallied in the Pakistani city of Karachi against possible changes to the blasphemy law that was behind the killing of Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab.

A large number of police officers guarded Sunday’s demonstration, which forced the closure of businesses and roads in the area. Participants chanted slogans and waved the flags of religious parties.

Taseer was killed in the capital, Islamabad, last Tuesday over his views in favour of the blasphemy law’s amendment. That liberal stance offended the country’s increasingly powerful conservative religious base.

Qari Ahsaan, from the banned group Jamaat ud Dawa, addressed the crowd from a stage, saying: “We can’t compromise on the blasphemy law. It’s a divine law and nobody can change it.”

“Our belief in the sanctity of our prophet is firm and uncompromising and we cannot tolerate anyone who blasphemes. Whoever blasphemes will face the same fate as Salman Taseer.”

But speaking to Al Jazeera from Islamabad, Omar Waraich, Pakistan correspondent for the UK newspaper, The Independent, said:”The reality is that there are no moves afoot right now to amend this law in any way. The government and the ruling party [Pakistan People’s Party, or PPP] have backed off that.”

“It [the rally] certainly means that a more radical, more intolerant mood has become mainstream in Pakistan for the moment.

“For the moment the liberal voices have been silenced.”

Deep faultlines

Pakistan has yet to execute anyone for blasphemy, but Bibi’s case has exposed the deep faultlines in the conservative country.

Al Jazeera’s Kamal Hyder said the protests in Karachi were a ‘sign of an increasingly polarised country’

Sunday’s protesters held banners in support of the police commando who shot dead Taseer. “Mumtaz Qadri is not a murderer, he is a hero,” said one banner in the national Urdu language.

“We salute the courage of Qadri,” said another.

Waraich called the Karachi rally “a display of muscle”.

“This is a muscle-flexing exercise by the religious right in Pakistan who, after the tragic events of this week when Salman Taseer was assassinated, they feel emboldened by the fact that there have been many cheering that tragedy and are now out to make political capital out of it,” he said.

The blasphemy law was recently used to sentence Asia Bibi, a Christian mother-of-five, to death. Politicians and conservative religious leaders have been at loggerheads over whether Asif Ali Zardari, Pakistan’s president, should pardon her.

Controversy over the law flared when Sherry Rehman, a former information minister and a senior PPP member, tabled a bill in November seeking to end the death penalty for blasphemy.

Rehman spoke to AFP from her heavily guarded home in Karachi on Sunday and said she would not be cowed by the protest.

“They can’t silence me … it’s not any extreme position like a repeal bill, it’s very rational,” she said. “They can’t decide what we think or speak, these are man-made laws.”

Sentences commuted

Most of those convicted of blasphemy in Pakistan have their sentences overturned or commuted on appeal through the courts.

However, Waraich of The Independent said, “what happens with these blasphemy laws is that they are used to give militants and vigilante groups and even the states, cover when actions are taken against minorities, especially the beleaguered Christian community in Pakistan”.

The pro-blasphemy law rally took place in Karachi as Christian groups held memorial services in Islamabad and in the eastern city of Lahore to honour Taseer.

Bishop Alexander John Malik led a rare gathering of 300 Christians at a cathedral in Lahore on Sunday.

“He was a voice for the oppressed section of society. We dedicate this day to him,” Malik said, before leading prayers for Taseer.

Only around three per cent of Pakistan’s population of 167 million are estimated to be non-Muslim.

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies