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Pakistani Rally Defends Strict Blasphemy Law

Maulana Fazalur Rehman (left), chief of the Pakistani religious party Jamiat Ulema Islam (JUI), addresses the crowd during a rally in Karachi on January 9.
Tens of thousands of Pakistanis turned out to demonstrate in the streets of Karachi on January 9 in a show of strength against talk of amending the country's tough blasphemy law.

The rally highlighted the popular support enjoyed by various religious parties and the difficulty that authorities face in confronting a tide of religious conservatism.

It follows the assassination last week by a special forces bodyguard of the governor of Punjab Province, Salman Taseer, a moderate who had repeatedly called for changes to the law, which makes blasphemy a potentially capital crime.

Taseer's suspected assassin, Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri, has confessed to the crime and said he was defending Islam. The initial reaction to the killing -- including the celebration of Qadri as a hero by some and a warning by a group of clerics that other moderates could face a similar fate -- shocked many people.

Taseer had defended a Christian woman, Aasia Bibi, sentenced to death under the blasphemy legislation.

The religious tension is heaped atop an already fraught atmosphere that has seen President Asif Ali Zardari's Pakistan People's Party backtrack on reforms and Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani battle to keep his fractious coalition afloat.

One of Gilani's concessions to stay in power was the abandonment of major reforms demanded by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) as part of an $11 billion rescue package agreed in 2008.

compiled from agency reports