Islamabad: Pakistan government has ruled out plans to amend or repeal a blasphemy law ahead of a nationwide protest called by religious hardliners to oppose any move to change the controversial statute.
Religious Affairs Minister Khurshid Ahmed Shah interrupted proceedings in the National Assembly or lower house of Parliament yesterday to make a policy statement that the government has no intention to repeal the blasphemy law enacted during the regime of late military ruler Zia-ul-Haq in the 1980s.
Shah also disowned a private bill moved by ruling Pakistan People`s Party lawmaker Sherry Rehman proposing changes in the law to abolish a mandatory death sentence and to guard against its misuse.
The government`s assurance came ahead of a countrywide strike called for December 31 by the Tehrik Tahafooz Namoos-e-Risalat, a grouping of hardline religious groups, including the Jamaat-ud-Dawah.
The groups have also asked the government to explain its stance on the blasphemy law.
"The government considers that its prime responsibility is to protect this law and it will never support any private members` bill even from the treasury benches in this regard," said Religious Affairs Minister Shah.
"If someone has brought a private bill, it has nothing to do with the government," Shah said in a reference to the private bill submitted by Sherry Rehman.
The blasphemy law has been at the centre of a contentious debate after a lower court in Punjab province sentenced Asia Bibi, a 45-year-old Christian woman, to death last month for insulting the Prophet Mohammed.
Asia Bibi has denied the charges and said she was framed following a row with some Muslim women of her village. Rights groups and liberals have complained that the blasphemy law in often misused to settle personal and political scores.
In a recent case, a doctor from a minority Islamic sect was arrested for alleged blasphemy after he threw the visiting card of a sales representative with the first name Muhammad in a dustbin.
In his policy statement, Shah assured Parliament that the government will not allow any wrong to be done to minority communities, who have often complained of false accusations made against them under the blasphemy law.
Top Pakistani leaders, including Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer, have declared the blasphemy statute a "black law" and President Asif Ali Zardari has formed a committee headed by Minority Affairs Minister Shahbaz Bhatti to review controversial aspects of the law.
Several banned groups operating under new names are part of the movement opposing changes to the blasphemy law.
JuD chief Hafiz Saeed made his first public appearance in Islamabad since the 2008 Mumbai attacks at a meeting organised by the hardliners on December 15 to chalk out a series of protests.