01/14/2011, 00.00
PAKISTAN
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For Pakistani Christians, the government is hostage to Islamic parties on the blasphemy issue

by Jibran Khan
Protestant leaders and human rights activists are frustrated by the prime minister who backs the blasphemy law. The Interior Ministry cracks down on websites with anti-Islamic content. The government kowtows to fundamentalist pressures despite its pledge to change laws that create confessional tensions. Street protests take place in Karachi against Benedict XVI.

Lahore (AsiaNews) – Churches in Pakistan have expressed frustration over the government's refusal to amend a controversial blasphemy law, as urged by Pope Benedict XVI and civil rights activists. Instead, the Interior Ministry had ordered a crackdown against websites and text messages that propagate “an anti-Islam agenda”, and has appealed to internet users and young people to report websites that post material deemed anti-Islam and Pakistan. In reality, its actions are a sign of its weakness in the face of the country’s extremist camp and the length to which it is willing to go to hang on to power. At the same time, anti-Pope demonstrations took place in Karachi and two other cities.

As organisers had previously announced, anti-Benedict XVI demonstrations took place in Karachi and two other Pakistani cities, drawing hundreds of people into the streets against the papal call for the repeal of the blasphemy law. At the end of Friday prayers, protesters shouted slogans against the Pontiff and in favour of the law.

“We are disappointed by the stand taken by the Prime Minister,” said Rizwan Paul, President of Life for All (LFA), an organisation that has defended dozens of Christians and Muslims charged under the law.

On Tuesday, after the papal speech to the diplomatic corps accredited to the Vatican, Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani ruled out any changes to the law.

Rizwan had expected the prime minister to take “a strong stand” against the law, given the growing protests that brought together Christians and Muslims.

The organisation representing Pakistan's four mainline Protestant churches also expressed its displeasure with Gilani.

“We are certainly frustrated by the response of the Prime Minister,” Victor Azariah, general secretary of the National Council of Churches in Pakistan (NCCP), told AsiaNews from his office at Lahore.

Nevertheless, "the negative government response was no surprise in the present political situation," he added.

In fact, the current government is hostage to the fundamentalist camp, especially now that it has weak support in parliament.

The Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) holds only 125 seats in the 342-member National Assembly, and is forced to rely on the support of independent legislators and Islamic parties that insist on upholding the blasphemy law in exchange of their support for the government.

“It is a very difficult situation for the government," admitted Mehboob Ahmed Khan, a civil rights activist who organised a candlelight vigil together with Church groups to protest Taseer’s 4 January murder.

During the 2008 election campaign, the PPP had promised that it would change laws that caused confessional tensions, including the blasphemy law.

By contrast, the decision by Interior Minister Rehman Malik to block websites and text messages with an allegedly “anti-Islam agenda” is proof of the government’s Islamist shift. Anyone accused in such cases would be prosecuted, the minister said.

At the same time, Malik appealed to young people to monitor the web, and ruled out any changes or repeal of the blasphemy law.

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