By BosNewsLife Asia Service with reporting by Xavier P. William in Pakistan and editing by BosNewsLife’s Stefan J. Bos
KARACHI, PAKISTAN (BosNewsLife)– Some 50,000 people rallied in Pakistan’s largest city Sunday, January 9, to oppose changes in a blasphemy law and to praise the alleged assassin of a provincial governor who campaigned against the controversial legislation.
Sunday’s demonstration came shortly after the governor of Punjab province, Salman Taseer, was shot dead on Tuesday, January 4, in the capital Islamabad by one of his own bodyguards, 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 internationally condemned laws — adding to fears of minority Christians and raising tensions in the volatile, nuclear armed, Asian nation.
Investigations are focusing on Qadri’s links with Islamic militants after a colleague reportedly revealed he was part of Dawat-i-Islami, a radical Islamist group at the forefront of protests against efforts to change the blasphemy laws, BosNewsLife learned.
Commentators say Taseer’s death has exposed deep divisions in Pakistan society between liberal politicians with Western lifestyles, and increasingly influential religious leaders with a strict Islamist view of the world.
Before the latest massive demonstration Sunday, over 500 religious scholars belonging to the hard-line ‘Barelvi school of thought’ paid tributes to the detained assassin and on Friday, January 7, urged “Muslims across the country” to boycott the mourning announced for the governor.
Pakistan’s blasphemy legislation, which was criticized by the late governor, stipulates that defaming the Islamic prophet Muhammad is punishable by death or life imprisonment. Critics say Muslim radicals have used the law to repeatedly incite violence against minority Christians, other religious minorities and even Muslims.
Several Christians have been imprisoned and threatened with execution, including Asia Bibi, a 45-year-old Christian woman, who was sentenced to death in November for “insulting” the Prophet Muhammad.
Asia Bibi, who is appealing the ruling, has denied the charges, saying she was framed following a row with Muslim women of her village. Rights groups say the law is often misused to settle personal and political scores and to persecute religious minorities.
Separately, in a rare recent case, a doctor from a minority Islamic sect was detained for alleged blasphemy after he apparently threw a business card of a sales representative, whose first name is Muhammad, in his dustbin, the Press Trust of India (PTI) news agency reported.
No one convicted under the law has been executed in recent years, but scores of accused persons, most of them Christians, have reportedly been killed by angry mobs.
In one of the latest cases, two Christian brothers accused of writing a blasphemous pamphlet were shot dead in July outside a court in the city of Faisalabad.
Human rights groups also say that blasphemy charges triggered deadly riots. In August 2009, a Muslim mob reportedly killed 11 Christians in Gorja, Pakistan, after an apparently false allegation of the desecration of the Koran, viewed by Muslims as a holy book.