A Pakistani court Wednesday ordered authorities to block Facebook temporarily over a competition encouraging users to post caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed on the social networking site.
The depiction of any prophet is strictly prohibited in Islam as blasphemous and Muslims across the world staged angry protests over the publication of satirical cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed in European newspapers in 2006.
Controversy erupted in the conservative Muslim country last month when a Facebook user set up a page called "Draw Mohammed Day", inviting people to send in their caricatures of the Muslim prophet on May 20.
The move angered thousands of young people and Muslim faithful in Pakistan, unleashing an online campaign and isolated protests that grabbed the government's attention and the controversial page was blocked on Tuesday.
But a group of Islamic lawyers went a step further Wednesday and petitioned the court to order a blanket ban on Facebook in Pakistan.
Justice Ejaz Chaudhry of the Lahore High Court directed the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA) to block Facebook until May 31, when the court will open a detailed hearing into the case.
"We moved the petition in the wake of widespread resentment in the Muslim community against the Facebook contest," lawyer Rai Bashir told AFP.
The petition also called on the government to lodge a strong protest with the owners of Facebook, he added.
PTA said it would implement the ban once the order has been issued by the ministry of information technology and confirmed it had already blocked access to the offending page.
"We will implement the order as soon as we get the instructions," Khurram Mehran told AFP.
"We have already blocked the URL link and issued instruction to Internet service providers yesterday," he said.
Nayatel, a leading Internet service provider, notified clients that it had blocked access to Facebook in compliance with the court order.
"Facebook has been holding a competition to draw caricatures of the Prophet Mohammad and has not removed the objectionable hate materials despite thousands of emails from Pakistani Facebook community," it said in a statement.
"This access would remain blocked till 31 May 2010 or further orders by the Lahore High Court," it added.
Facebook, which is based in the United States, was not immediately reachable for comment.
About 20 people demonstrated outside court in the eastern city of Lahore, carrying banners condemning Facebook and praising Mohammed.
Hardline Islamic party Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam, an ally of the main ruling Pakistan People's Party, welcomed the court order and called for a complete ban on all Western websites "promoting liberal culture and obscenity".
"The West, Europe and America are doing such things deliberately to hurt Muslims and to create divides between Islam and other religions," said a senior party member Mohammad Riaz Durrani.
"They are doing this because the want to use such sentiments to continue their war on terror justifying extremism within Islam," he told AFP.
But fans of Facebook, which is wildly popular among the urban, educated and generally moderate elite in Pakistan, were dismayed by the court order.
"What if they will ban it permanent? I will move out somewhere else," one user wrote on his Facebook status update.
Another user said the court order was "crazy".
"This is like spreading extremism as if nobody knew about this page. Now everyone knows," she told AFP on condition of anonymity.
"People are sensible and if you don?t like that page you don?t go on that page," she said, calling for moderation.
Pakistan briefly banned YouTube in February 2008 in a similar protest against "blasphemous" cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed on the popular website.
YouTube said an Internet service provider complying with Pakistan's ban routed many worldwide users to nowhere for a couple of hours, which sparked a worldwide outage.