WASHINGTON - Minorities in Pakistan are anxiously awaiting the final court ruling against a hardline cleric who was indicted last month on charges of sedition and terrorism for inciting nationwide protests in Pakistan.
An Anti-Terrorism Court (ATC) in Pakistan's Punjab province formally charged Khadim Hussain Rizvi, the leader of Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), an extremist political party, but has not yet given a date for its final ruling.
Analysts predict that it will take some time, given the sensitivity of blasphemy laws in Pakistan.
ATC was established in 1998 as a separate court, under former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's government to address crimes related to terror in a speedy manner.
The latest indictment against Rizvi comes a year after Pakistan's Supreme Court's decision in 2018 in which Asia Bibi, a Christian woman accused of committing blasphemy, was acquitted of the charges. Rizvi's party took issue with the ruling, demanding that the court proceed with the initial charges and sentence Bibi to death for insulting the prophet of Islam.
After spearheading large protests in the country that blocked several cities, the government last year took measures, cracked down on TLP's members, and arrested its leader, Rizvi after he openly urged his supporters to target the Supreme Court judges for their decision in Asia's case.
"Either be loyal to the Prophet or leave Islam. There is no third way for true Muslims; the third way is only for hypocrites and infidels." Rizvi told his supporters at the time.
Despite the Pakistani government's crackdown on the TLP members, religious minorities and experts are concerned about Rizvi's expanding ideological reach.
Noman Taj, a Punjab-based journalist, told VOA that Rizvi maintains a large following that adheres to his hardline ideology.
"There is a sizable faction of people that not only follow Allama Khadim Rizvi but who support and admire him for his outspokenness and knowledge about Islam," Taj told VOA.
Taj added that Rizvi's public speaking skills further enable him to draw large crowds.
"The language Rizvi uses and his style of delivering sermons appeals to the masses … A big chunk of the rural population in Punjab agrees with his ideology and preaching's, especially in regards to Mumtaz Qadri," Taj said.
Mumtaz Qadri, a security guard for Salman Taseer, former governor of Punjab province, killed the very person he was tasked with protecting in 2011 because Taseer defended Asia Bibi and criticized Pakistan's controversial blasphemy laws.
TLP party members, particularly Rizvi, openly praise Qadri for the assassination of Taseer and often refer to him in sermons as a "martyr" and true defender of Islam.
Qadri was sentence to death and executed in 2016 on murder charges.
Appeal to masses
Christian minority groups in Pakistan say that Rizvi has the ability to "emotionalize people successfully" and the capacity to rally masses.
"Even in the streets they have been able to mobilize people in good size and number all around the country which has created an atmosphere of fear and threat among the minorities," Samson Salamat, Chairman of Rwadari Tehreek, a social movement that works to counter religious extremism, told VOA.
Harris Khalique of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan echos Salamat's concerns and charges that Rizvi caters to people's religious sentiments and emotions, which run high, especially when it comes to blasphemy cases.
But Khalique thinks the case would be resolved through back door channels given the sensitivity of blasphemy laws in the country.
"Mostly, in such cases, a back door settlement is negotiated in Pakistan to avoid any political ramifications," he said.
Critics complain that Pakistan's blasphemy laws are used to persecute religious minorities and settle personal vendettas, prompting criticism from rights groups and activists that the law needs to be modified.
"HRCP [Human Rights Commission Pakistan] has long maintained that blasphemy laws are used to settle personal and political vendettas." Khalique said.
He added that change in Pakistan's blasphemy laws would likely not occur in the near future and the resistance to amend the law "not only comes from religious outfits like Rizvi's but some important mainstream political parties in Pakistan that have kept the issue alive for their political expediency."
Resistance to change
Some Islamic parties like TLP, have resisted calls for change, and targeted those who suggested amendments to the blasphemy laws.
"This is a religious matter. The Christian lady has committed blasphemy and admitted using derogatory language against Prophet Muhammad," Ejaz Ahmad, the TLP spokesperson, told VOA last year when the issue of Asia's acquittal and possible amendments to the law was raised in Pakistan.
End of Prophesy
Rizvi is also a proponent of the Khatm-e-Nabuwat (belief in the finality of the Prophet-hood of Muhammad).
Soloman Salamat, a Christian minority rights activist in Pakistan say "Rizvi and his group TLP are the most active group propagating the issue of Khatm-e-Nabuwat and the concept of blasphemy."
As a result, minorities in the country continue to use extreme caution when interacting with other Pakistanis.
"Blasphemy laws are still the biggest threat for the minorities and I can say with responsibility that people belonging to minority groups check their words at least one-hundred times while dealing with fellow Pakistani," Salamat added.
Some minority group accuse TLP and others of politicizing the end of prophesy issue.
"Khadim Hussain Rizvi uses Khatm-e-Nubuwat to fulfill his agenda. He uses fiery language to incite people…it motivates people to become violent towards Ahmadi's," Saleem Ud Din, the spokesperson for Ahmadi religious minority group in Pakistan, told VOA.
"But all politicians in Pakistan use this for their vested interest," he added.