South Asia

Massive Karachi rally in support of blasphemy law

Pakistani Islamists at the rally in Karachi on 9 January 2011
Image caption Salman Taseer's killing has exposed the deep divisions within the Pakistani society

Up to 50,000 people have staged a protest in the southern Pakistani city of Karachi against a proposed softening of strict blasphemy laws.

The rally was attended by all major Muslim groups and sects in the city, including moderates and conservatives.

The demonstration comes days after the killing of Punjab Province Governor Salman Taseer, who had backed the proposed amendments.

The governor was allegedly shot by one of his own bodyguards.

The killing has divided Pakistani society.

'No compromise'

Religious groups blocked a main street in Karachi, holding banners in support of Malik Mumtaz Hussein Qadri, who is accused of shooting dead Mr Taseer last Tuesday.

"Mumtaz Qadri is not a murderer, he is a hero," read one banner at the Sunday's rally, news agency AFP reports.

"We salute the courage of Qadri," said another.

Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani was quoted by AFP news agency as saying in Islamabad: "I have already clarified and our religious affairs minister has also said that we have no intentions to amend this law."

Mr Taseer - a senior member of the governing Pakistan People's Party (PPP) - had recently angered Islamists by calling for a Christian woman, Asia Bibi, sentenced to death for blasphemy, to be pardoned.

Mumtaz Qadri was detained after the shooting and is said to have confessed to the murder.

At his first court appearance in Islamabad the guard was showered with rose petals by lawyers and hugged by other supporters.

Mr Qadri said he had been angered by Mr Taseer's stance against the blasphemy laws.

Asia Bibi was sentenced to death for allegedly insulting the Prophet Muhammad during an argument with other farmhands in a Punjab village in June 2009. She denies the charge.

Under Pakistan's blasphemy law, insulting Islam is a capital offence.

Critics say the law has been used to persecute minority faiths in Pakistan and is exploited by people with personal grudges.

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