x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Islamists lead Pakistan strike in political crisis

Business centres shut down in Pakistan today in a strike called by Islamists to pressure the ruling party which is scrambling to stop its main coalition partner from pulling out of the governing coalition.

ISLAMABAD // Business centres shut down in Pakistan today in a strike called by Islamists to pressure the ruling party which is scrambling to stop its main coalition partner from pulling out of the governing coalition.

Religious parties called the action to protest against what it believes are plans by the government to change the country's controversial blasphemy law.

But analysts say the strike has more to do with politics than religion. The prime minister has said publicly the government does not intend to abolish or change the law.

Thousands of supporters of Islamic parties rallied in towns and cities across the country to support the law which came under the spotlight when a Christian woman was sentenced to death in November by a court on charges of insulting Islam.

Critics say the law is used to persecute religious minorities, fan religious extremism and settle personal scores.

"We will not allow the government to bring about any change in the blasphemy law. If it tried to do so, we would send it packing," Hafiz Hamdullah, a cleric and local leader of the Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Islam (JUI) party, told supporters in the southwestern city of Quetta.

A loose alliance of over a dozen Islamist parties, many of them pro-Taliban, announced the general strike on December 15, a day after the JUI pulled out of the coalition after Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani sacked one of its ministers.

All major markets and business centres were closed in the capital Islamabad as well as in the cities of Karachi, Lahore, Rawalpindi, Peshawar and Quetta.

Public transport was not running in Karachi, Pakistan's commercial capital and biggest city. Police fired tear gas at dozens of protesters in Karachi but no one was injured.

President Asif Ali Zardari is leading efforts to pacify the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), the second largest party in the governing coalition, which this week pulled its two ministers from the federal cabinet.