Thousands in Pak demand strict blasphemy law

Agencies/ Islamabad
November 14, 2017 INTERNATIONAL 125 Views

Thousands of supporters of a firebrand Pakistani cleric, many armed with sticks and iron rods, have blocked a main entrance to Islamabad since last week, demanding the resignation of the country’s law minister and a strict adherence to blasphemy laws.+
Led by Khadim Hussain Rizvi of the Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan party, at least 3,000 protesters were staging a sit-in on one of the main highways leading to the capital.
Officials say they suspect some of the protesters are carrying more serious weapons, and there is concern the standoff might turn violent. In response, the government has blocked several other roads to stop the protesters from moving to important government buildings.
Crippling, hourslong traffic jams have resulted. Long lines of vehicles could be seen for much of the past week and on Sunday on the roads leading to Islamabad from the suburbs and neighboring Rawalpindi. Several schools near the protest site remained closed. Shipping containers barricading the main streets are a ubiquitous sight.
“Hectic efforts and negotiations are on to resolve the issue,” said Kamran Cheema, the assistant commissioner of Islamabad.
But the leaders of the protesters remained defiant.
“We will lay our lives, but we will not step down from our demands,” Rizvi, the cleric, said from atop a stage set up on a cargo truck as his supporters chanted “Labaik Ya Rasool Allah, Labaik” (I am here, Prophet of God, I am here).
The sit-in underscores the difficulties the government faces in dealing with right-wing extremist groups. The governing political party, Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, is already reeling from the fallout over the disqualification in July of its leader Nawaz Sharif, as prime minister, over a corruption investigation.
Any violent confrontation with hard-line clerics would further exacerbate a tumultuous political situation.
The latest controversy erupted last month, when the government introduced changes to electoral laws. A change in the wording of an oath for lawmakers that dealt with a declaration of Prophet Muhammad as God’s final prophet quickly set off a furor among opposition parties, especially the religious groups.
They protested that the change amounted to blasphemy.
Blasphemy is a particularly combustible issue in Pakistan, often leading to violent riots and vigilante justice. Critics and rights groups say the blasphemy laws are used to persecute religious minorities, especially the Ahmadis, who are considered non-Muslims, according to the country’s Constitution.
The government quickly reversed the change to the oath, but the damage had been done. It remains unclear what prompted the alteration of the electoral oath. Officials initially said the change had been the result of a “clerical error.”

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