KARACHI Up to 50,000 people from various religious parties rallied in Karachi on Sunday to oppose any changes in a controversial blasphemy law, police said.
The show of strength highlighted how hard it would be to roll back a tide of religious conservatism after the assassination on Tuesday of the governor of the largest province for supporting changes in the blasphemy law.
Salman Taseer, the Punjab governor, was killed in Islamabad by Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri, one of his own bodyguards.
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, Aasia Bibi, was sentenced to death last year on charges Taseer said were false.
"We will not accept any change to this law," said Fazl-ur-Rehman, chief of the Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Islam, a pro-Taliban religious party that left the ruling coalition last month over the sacking of one of its ministers.
Rehman said that the government was itself responsible for Taseer's murder. If he had been removed from office and arrested for his comments, he would still be alive, he said.
"And now that you have taken Taseer's case to the court, we also have the right to defend Mumtaz Qadri."
Such strong and vocal support for Qadri has dismayed Pakistani liberals and foreign allies such as the United States, which sees the growing extremism in Pakistan's mainstream as a major security threat.
While the Islamists do not win many seats in elections, they have the capacity to bring people out into the streets.
GOVERNMENT BACKTRACKS ON REFORMS
The rally followed a tumultuous week in Pakistani politics in which the government of President Asif Ali Zardari's Pakistan People's Party backtracked on reforms to stave off collapse.
On Sunday, Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani accepted demands from former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in a bid to further defuse Pakistan's political crisis.
Sharif had called for the government to reverse fuel price increases, cut government spending by 30 percent, fire "corrupt" officials and form an independent election commission and accountability body.
Gilani and Zardari faced the expulsion of PPP members from Punjab's provincial government if they failed to accept Sharif's demands. Being expelled from the government of the largest province would have further hobbled the PPP-led coalition federal government.
On Friday, the PPP lured a coalition partner back to its parliamentary bloc by reversing a fuel price increase and deferring implementation of an unpopular sales tax.
Both measures were among reforms demanded by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) as part of an $11 billion bailout agreement made in 2008.
The government's decision to rollback and defer the reforms prompted sharp criticism from the IMF and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, although it is unlikely to endanger the release of approximately $3 billion remaining in the loan.
(Additional reporting by Kamran Haider; Editing by Chris Allbritton and Myra MacDonald)
(For more Reuters coverage of Pakistan, see: here)