ISLAMABAD // Businesses shut down and buses stayed off the streets in many parts of Pakistan yesterday as thousands rallied against changing the country's 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 Mohammed.
She is believed to be the first woman condemned to die under the statute, and her plight has caused outrage among human rights activists and Christian organisations who say the blasphemy laws are too often abused.
Pakistani Islamist groups called for the strikes and rallies yesterday despite assurances by the embattled ruling Pakistan People's Party that it would not pursue any changes to the law.
In the major cities of Karachi, Lahore, Peshawar, Islamabad and its neighbouring garrison town of Rawalpindi, 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 north-west.
Sahibzada Fazal Karim, a leader of the Islamist 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. Last week, thousands of Islamists rallied in major cities in support of the law.
President Asif Ali Zardari's ruling party is struggling to keep its governing coalition intact, meaning it is unlikely to want to stoke furore from Islamist allies by delving into the blasphemy issue.
Even as some Pakistanis rallied in support of changing the law, government ministers disavowed efforts by a party politician, Sherry Rehman, to introduce a bill to amend it.
Ms Rehman said she would pursue the bill despite the 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 victimise 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 November 8, triggering protests from rights groups and Christians here and overseas, including an appeal from Pope Benedict XVI.
Her family said the mother of five was innocent and the victim of a personal feud. The presidency has hinted at a pardon for her, but saidit was waiting on a court to rule on her appeal.
A hardline cleric, Yousef Qureshi, has said if the government did not execute Bibi, his mosque would pay anyone who killed her US$5,800 (Dh21,300).
More recently, Pakistani authorities arrested a doctor on suspicion of blasphemy because he threw away a business card of a pharmaceutical representative whose first name is Mohammed.
With additional reporting by Agence France-Presse