Several thousand Islamists in Pakistan have effectively blocked a main crossing near the national capital, Islamabad, crippling the daily life of millions of people and underscoring challenges facing the country’s counter extremism efforts.
Activists of the Tehreek-i-Labaik Yah Rasool Allah party began their rally Tuesday from the eastern city of Lahore before arriving late Wednesday at the famous Faizabad crossing.
Charged protesters are demanding the federal government immediately remove Law Minister Zahid Hamid for allegedly pushing a constitutional amendment favoring Pakistan’s persecuted Ahmadi religious minority.
Rally leaders have vowed not to disperse until their demands are met, although the government, under pressure from its allied Islamic parties in the parliament, has already reversed the controversial amendment.
Pakistani Interior Minister Ahsan Iqbal told VOA the government has rejected the protesters' demand for the law minister to be removed, saying there is no charge against him.
"There is a small group of certain demonstrators who are sitting on one road. We are trying to talk to them through dialogue to persuade them that this is an illegal action to make a sit-down on the road because there is a restriction on such an assembly under the law. However, if they indulge in any violent activity the law will take its course," Iqbal said.
But rally organizers insist Hamid be punished for his alleged act, and some have even questioned his Islamic faith.
“Since our people were upset, disturbed by the parliamentary action, so we decided to organize the protest in the city where this dishonest act took place. So, our first demand is the removal of the law minister.”said Khadim Rizvi, leader of the religious party.
The allegations against Hamid prompted the minister to post a video message overnight on social media to affirm his Muslim faith and declare he is not an Ahmadi. The move underscores challenges authorities in Pakistan face over the country’s Islamic law of blasphemy and related clauses in the constitution.
Ahmadis are declared non-Muslims under the Pakistani constitution and considered apostates by the clergy. Members of the community in Pakistan are barred from calling themselves Muslims or referring to their worship places as mosques.
Ahmadis’ interpretation of Islam differs from traditional orthodox positions, and community leaders insist their faith has been misinterpreted by mainstream Muslims, encouraging fundamentalists to persecute and preach violence against them.
Islamabad’s administration has placed scores of shipping containers and deployed up to 4,000 policemen to prevent protesters from entering Islamabad’s key areas, particularly the “Red Zone” housing foreign diplomatic missions, government offices and the parliament.
Most schools and offices in the city were closed Thursday.
The government has been under criticism for not dispersing the rally to bring relief to students, businessmen, shopkeepers and patients from neighboring cities to seek medical care at relative better hospitals in Islamabad.
Police and relatives have confirmed the death of at least one child who could not be taken to a hospital for emergency medical aide due to the road block.