Businesses shut down and buses stayed off the streets in many parts of Pakistan on Friday as thousands rallied against changing the country’s controversial laws against blasphemy. In one major city, police used tear gas to disperse demonstrators who pelted them with stones.
Pakistan’s long-standing law against blasphemy gained new attention this year when a Christian woman, Asia Bibi, was sentenced to death in November for allegedly insulting the Prophet Muhammad.
She’s believed to be the first woman condemned to die under the statute, and her plight has caused outrage among human rights activists and Christian organizations who say the blasphemy laws are too often abused.
Pakistani religious groups called for the strikes and rallies Friday despite assurances by the embattled ruling Pakistan People’s Party that it would not pursue any changes to the law.
Except for the big cities, Pakistanis often observe Friday as a day off instead of the official Sunday weekly holiday.
But even in the major cities, many stores were closed and public transportation was visibly less available than usual. And after Friday prayers, groups gathered and marched from many mosques, chanting and carrying signs.
“Blasphemy deserves death, just death,” read a banner in one of the rallies.
“Our rulers shall not oblige the minority at the cost of the majority,” said Zahir Shah, a garment shop owner in Peshawar, the main city in the northwest.
Sahibzada Fazal Karim, a leader of the religious alliance behind the rallies, warned the government against making the changes to the law. “This strike is a referendum,” he said.
The rallies were largely peaceful except for one in Karachi, where police were pelted with stones and fired tear gas shells. No one was wounded, police officer Naseer Tanoli said.
Even as some Pakistanis rallied in support of changing the law, government ministers disavowed efforts by a party lawmaker, Sherry Rehman, to introduce a bill to amend it.
Rehman said she would pursue the bill despite Friday’s strikes, echoing long-standing concerns by human rights activists that the law is used to target religious minorities or as part of vendettas.
“The law is misused to settle personal scores,” she said. “No demonstration of premeditation is required to victimize an alleged blasphemer.” Dozens of Pakistanis are sentenced to death each year under the blasphemy law, but most cases are thrown out by higher courts and no executions have been carried out.
Still, some who are accused end up being killed by extremists.
A Pakistani court sentenced the 45-year-old Bibi to death on Nov. 8, triggering protests from rights groups.
Her family says the mother of five is innocent and the victim of a personal feud. The presidency has hinted at a pardon for her, but says it is waiting on a court to rule on her appeal.
– Prophecy News Watch