Businesses were shut across Pakistan on Friday in a protest strike over moves to amend a blasphemy law that permits the death penalty and which rights campaigners say encourages Islamist extremism.
Conservative religious groups called for a national strike in a bid to block any intended amendment after thousands of Islamists rallied in major cities last week.
The strike went ahead despite a categorical announcement by deputy information minister Samsam Bokhari on Thursday that the government had no intention to amend the controversial law.
AFP reporters said markets were closed on Friday and roads deserted in the otherwise bustling cities of Karachi, Lahore, Peshawar, Islamabad and its neighbouring garrison town of Rawalpindi.
“We will start a civil disobedience movement if the government makes any amendment to the law,” the chairman of influential Muslim grouping the Sunni Ittehad Council, Sahebzada Fazal Karim told AFP.
Former Information Minister Sherry Rehman from the ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) sparked fury when he lodged a private member’s bill seeking to abolish the death penalty for blasphemy.
Pakistan provoked international condemnation after the death sentence was passed on a Christian woman found guilty of defaming the Prophet Mohammed.
Pope Benedict XVI has called for the release of mother-of-five Asia Bibi.
Samsam Bokhari disassociated the government from the bill, saying it was not policy.
“As far as the party is concerned, the law is not being amended, nor does the government intend to bring any change in it.”
In Pakistan’s financial hub of Karachi shopping centres, colleges and universities were closed and examinations scheduled for Friday were postponed.
President of the local transport association in Karachi, Irshad Bokhari, told AFP that public transport would remain off the road in response to the strike call.
Chairman of Karachi Traders Unity, Atiq Mir said: “All markets and business centres are closed because the protection of Prophet Mohammad’s honour is supreme to us.”
Shops and business centres were also shut in the northwestern city of Peshawar and capital Islamabad.
Only around three percent of Pakistan’s population of 167 million are thought to be non-Muslim and minorities complain of discrimination.
Pakistan has yet to execute anyone for blasphemy. Most of those given the death penalty have their sentences overturned or commuted on appeal through the courts.