Tens of thousands of supporters mourn death of radical cleric in Pakistan

Tens of thousands of supporters on Saturday thronged the funeral of a radical cleric whose Islamist party has defended Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy law that calls for the death penalty for insulting Islam.

The mourners gathered in the eastern city of Lahore, where the Islamist scholar and leader, Khadim Hussein Rizvi, died two days ago at the age of 54.

Rizvi’s party, Tehreek-e-Labiak, holds only two seats in parliament, but his movement has repeatedly pressed its cause by staging large-scale demonstrations.

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Rizvi led last Sunday thousands of his followers at a sit-in in the capital of Islamabad protesting the republishing in France of caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad, which he deemed blasphemous. Demonstrators briefly clashed with security forces at the rally, which was one in a wave of protests across the country expressing outrage over the caricatures.

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Pakistan’s government promised on Tuesday that the protesters’ demands for cutting diplomatic ties with France and expelling the French ambassador would be discussed in parliament soon. A spokesman for the Tehreek-e-Labiak, said the government had also agreed to release any party members detained at the recent protests.

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The radical Islamist party gained prominence in Pakistan’s 2018 elections, campaigning on a single-point agenda of defending the country’s blasphemy law.

In November 2017, its followers staged a 21-day protest and sit-in after a reference to the sanctity of the Prophet Muhammad was removed from the text of a government form.

Rizvi led the protests last year, after Pakistani authorities freed Aasia Bibi, a Christian Pakistani woman held on death row for eight years on charges of committing blasphemy. A court acquitted her but she had to flee to Canada after threats to her life.

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The prophet caricatures published in France sparked protests across Asia and the Middle East, with calls for the boycott of French products. They were also seen as the trigger for several deadly attacks against French nationals and interests in recent weeks.

© 2020 The Canadian Press