50,000 gather to protest in Karachi
Shouting anti-government slogans, thousands of people on Sunday marched here in Pakistan’s financial capital to oppose any amendments in the controversial blasphemy laws and praised the man charged with killing Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer who dubbed it as “black law”.
The massive rally, organized by religious parties, was addressed by Jamat-e-Islami chief Syed Munawar Hasan, Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman, Jamiat Ulema-e-Pakistan’s Sahibzada Abul Khair Zubair, JI Karachi amir Muhammad Hussain Mehnati and others.
Outlawed Jamaat-ud-Dawah chief Hafiz Saeed appeared in the rally.
The demonstrators centered around the M A Jinnah Road and the Mausoleum of Quaid-e-Azam in Saddar area here with people converging in the area on the call of the splinter of conservative religio-political parties who oppose any changes to the laws that make insulting Islam a capital offense.
The rally of up to 50,000 people in downtown Karachi was one of the largest demonstrations of support for the laws, which make insulting Islam a capital offense. It was organized before the governor of Punjab province, Salman Taseer, was shot dead on Tuesday in Islamabad by a bodyguard who told a court he considered Taseer a blasphemer.
Wearing green headbands and holding flags with the Quranic verses inscribed on them, hundreds of youngsters, some of them wielding sticks, shouted slogans against the Pakistani government and the United States.
Syed Munawar Hasan, the head of Jamaat-e-Islami, said that there was no need to mourn the death of Taseer, while a leader of the Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Pakistan, from the Barelvi sect, praised Qadri as a hero of Islam.
“There is a Mumtaz Qadri in every house of Pakistan,” Sahibzada Abul Khair Muhammad Zubair told the crowd.
The blasphemy law has been the subject of much attention after a Christian woman, Asia Bibi, was sentenced to death last year on charges Taseer said were false.
The size of the Karachi rally, which was large even by the standards of the city of 16 million, showed how bitter the argument is over the decades-old laws.
Although courts typically overturn blasphemy convictions and no executions have been carried out, rights activists say the laws are used to settle rivalries and persecute religious minorities.
Amid the threats from groups defending the law, the prime minister ruled out any changes to the legislation on Sunday, even as one of his key Cabinet ministers promised reforms were still on the agenda.
“This huge rally today has categorically signaled that nobody could dare to amend the blasphemy law,” said Fazlur Rehman, the key speaker at Sunday’s demonstration and head of the Taliban-linked conservative religious party Jamiat Ulema Islam.
“If the rulers are out to defend Taseer, so we also have the right to legally defend Mumtaz Qadri,” he told the crowd.
He said Taseer “was responsible for his own murder” because he had criticized the law.
Many marchers waved the flags of conservative and radical Islamist parties and chanted: “Courage and bravery, Qadri, Qadri.”
Many wore head and arm bands inscribed: “We are ready to sacrifice our lives for the sanctity of the prophet.”
Qari Ahsaan, from the banned group Jamaat ud Dawa, addressed the crowd from a stage, saying: “We can’t compromise on the blasphemy law. It’s a divine law and nobody can change it.”
“Our belief in the sanctity of our prophet is firm and uncompromising and we cannot tolerate anyone who blasphemes. Whoever blasphemes will face the same fate as Salman Taseer.”
Cleric Malik Munir Babar said, ” This is just the begining, we will hold same sort of protests across Pakistan, our struggle will continue, you will see millions in the upcoming protests. We will soon announced a long march towards Islamabad.”
Christians gathered in Islamabad at a memorial ceremony organized by Life for All to remember Mr Taseer. “We are here to pray for him because he was murdered because of our cause, and because he was campaigning for justice for Christians in Pakistan and peace for the world,” said Mr. Rizwan Paul representing Life for All.
“He was a voice for the oppressed section of society. We dedicate this day to him,” Kashif Mazhar said, before leading prayers for the governor.
Controversy over the law flared when Sherry Rehman, a former information minister and a senior PPP member, tabled a bill in November seeking to end the death penalty for blasphemy.
Rehman spoke to the media from her heavily guarded home in Karachi on Sunday and said she would not be cowed by the protest.
“They can’t silence me … it’s not any extreme position like a repeal bill, it’s very rational,” she said. “They can’t decide what we think or speak, these are man-made laws.”