ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Five hundred moderate Pakistani religious scholars have warned that anyone who expresses grief over the assassination of a senior ruling party official who opposed the country's blasphemy law could suffer the same fate.
Salmaan Taseer, a liberal politician close to President Asif Ali Zardari, had no day-to-day role in the central government, but his killing in broad daylight at a shopping centre in Islamabad reinforces the sense that the government is incapable of stabilising the Muslim country of 170 million.
The Punjab province governor was killed on Tuesday by one of his guards, who was apparently incensed by the politician's opposition to the blasphemy law, in a parking lot at the block of shops popular with foreigners.
Human rights groups say the law is often exploited by religious conservatives as well as ordinary people to settle personal scores.
But the law has widespread support in a country that is more than 95 percent Muslim, and most politicians are loath to be seen as soft on the defence of Islam. Taseer, however, was an outspoken critic.
The Jamaat-e-Ahl-e-Sunnat Pakistan group of scholars is a vocal critic of Taliban militants who are violently opposed to the government and its ally the United States.
The group is one of the largest representing scholars from the moderate Barelvi sect of Sunni Muslims. They have been leading protests in favour of the blasphemy law.
That illustrates how difficult it can be for Washington which sees Islamabad as indispensable in its war on militancy, to persuade Pakistani leaders to crack down harder on religious extremism.
"More than 500 scholars of the Jamaat-e-Ahl-e-Sunnat have advised Muslims not to offer the funeral prayers of Governor Punjab Salman Taseer nor try to lead the prayers," the group said in a statement.
"Also, there should be no no expression of grief or sympathy on the death of the governor, as those who support blasphemy of the Prophet are themselves indulging in blasphemy."
Taseer's killing has deepened a political crisis in Pakistan, a nuclear-powered South Asian country which is a front-line state in the war against militancy in Afghanistan.
It came two days after a main partner in Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani's coalition bolted for the opposition in protest over fuel price policies, leaving him without a parliamentary majority and struggling to save his government.
The blasphemy law came under the spotlight after a court in November sentenced a Christian mother of four, Asia Bibi, to death in a case stemming from a village dispute.
Interior Minister Rehman Malik said the bodyguard who killed Taseer, identified as Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri, confessed and had been arrested.
"Salman Taseer is a blasphemer and this is the punishment for a blasphemer," Qadri said in comments broadcast on Dunya television.
The group of scholars also noted the "courage" and religious zeal of Taseer's killer, saying his action has made Muslims around the world proud.
It also said that the "so-called" intellectuals, ministers, politicians and television anchors who oppose the blasphemy law and support those committing blasphemy should learn a lesson from Taseer's death.
Taseer was shot 14 times from a distance of about six feet (2 metres), said Khawaja Waseem Ahmed, a spokesman for the hospital where he was treated.
Taseer had visited Bibi in prison in a campaign for her release. He wrote on his Twitter page last Friday: "I was under huge pressure sure 2 cow down b4 rightist pressure on blasphemy. Refused. Even if I'm the last man standing." (Additional reporting by Faisal Aziz and Kamran Haider; Editing by Robert Birsel) (For more Reuters coverage of Pakistan, see: http://www.reuters.com/places/pakistan)
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