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ISLAMABAD, Pakistan: Thousands of supporters of a firebrand Pakistani cleric, many armed with sticks and iron rods, have blocked a main entrance to Islamabad since last week, demanding the resignation of the country’s law minister and a
strict adherence to blasphemy laws.+
Led by Khadim Hussain Rizvi of the Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan party, at least 3,000 protesters were staging a sit-in on one of the main highways leading to the capital.
Officials say they suspect some of the protesters are carrying more serious weapons, and there is concern the standoff might turn violent. In response, the government has blocked several other roads to stop the protesters from moving to important government buildings.
Crippling, hourslong traffic jams have resulted. Long lines of vehicles could be seen for much of the past week and on Sunday on the roads leading to Islamabad from the suburbs and neighboring Rawalpindi. Several schools near the protest site remained closed. Shipping containers barricading the main streets are a ubiquitous sight.
“Hectic efforts and negotiations are on to resolve the issue,” said Kamran Cheema, the assistant commissioner of Islamabad.
But the leaders of the protesters remained defiant.
“We will lay our lives, but we will not step down from our demands,” Rizvi, the cleric, said from atop a stage set up on a cargo truck as his supporters chanted “Labaik Ya Rasool Allah, Labaik” (I am here, Prophet of God, I am here).
The sit-in underscores the difficulties the government faces in dealing with right-wing extremist groups. The governing political party, Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, is already reeling from the fallout over the disqualification in July of its leader Nawaz Sharif, as prime minister, over a corruption investigation.
Any violent confrontation with hard-line clerics would further exacerbate a tumultuous political situation.
The latest controversy erupted last month, when the government introduced changes to electoral laws. A change in the wording of an oath for lawmakers that dealt with a declaration of Prophet Muhammad as God’s final prophet quickly set off a furor among opposition parties, especially the religious groups.
They protested that the change amounted to blasphemy.
Blasphemy is a particularly combustible issue in Pakistan, often leading to violent riots and vigilante justice. Critics and rights groups say the blasphemy laws are used to persecute religious minorities, especially the Ahmadis, who are considered non-Muslims, according to the country’s Constitution.
The government quickly reversed the change to the oath, but the damage had been done. It remains unclear what prompted the alteration of the electoral oath. Officials initially said the change had been the result of a “clerical error.”
The law minister, Zahid Hamid, is now in the center of the storm. Religious leaders have accused him of blasphemy and of being an Ahmadi. Hamid has denied both accusations, and in a video message last week, emphatically stated that he believed that Muhammad was God’s final prophet.
But the protesters are calling for Hamid to be fired — a demand unacceptable to the government.
Rizvi, a virtual unknown few years ago, belongs to the Barelvi sect and has built his reputation as a staunch defender of the country’s blasphemy laws. In the process he has amassed considerable political muscle. His sermons are often laced with invectives and profanities aimed at religious minorities and opponents.
In September, Rizvi’s party entered the political fray and — to the surprise of many observers — won more than 7,000 votes, or 6 percent, in a by-election in Lahore, in eastern Pakistan, for the seat vacated by the ouster of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
The relatively strong showing seems to have further emboldened Rizvi, as he used the electoral oath controversy to charge toward the capital. The ease with which the protesters were able to gather near Islamabad has drawn attention.
“Any violence will work to the advantage of the right wing, and they know it,” Dawn, a leading newspaper, said in a Sunday editorial. “The government must not give in to them.”
The protesters have threatened to lay siege to the airport in Islamabad, a railway station in Rawalpindi and several other government buildings if their demands are not met.
At least 10,000 law enforcement officers were poised to act if negotiations failed and protesters tried to take the law into their hands, officials said.
“The current situation cannot be tolerated endlessly,” Cheema warned.