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Pakistan PM urges tolerance amid rising militancy

world Updated: Mar 07, 2011 19:42 IST

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Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani on Monday sought Muslim scholars' help in curbing extremism and urged the country's youth to follow Islamic teachings of tolerance and peace.

Gilani's appeal came after suspected militants gunned down his lone Catholic minister Shahbaz Bhatti in broad daylight in Islamabad last week.

Minorities Affairs Minister Bhatti, 42, who was an outspoken campaigner against Pakistan's Islamic blasphemy laws, died in a hail of bullets as he left his mother's home on Wednesday.

Bhatti's murder came months after Punjab provincial governor Salman Taseer, a liberal politician and opponent of the blasphemy law, was shot dead by one of his police bodyguards, who was hailed as a hero by religious groups.

The minister's assassination last week rekindled international fears about extremist violence in Pakistan, a crucial ally in the US-led war in Afghanistan.

"The country's present situation demands that we follow the life of the Prophet Mohammad, who taught us tolerance and brotherhood," Gilani told a conference of Muslim scholars.

Some 300 Islamic scholars from Pakistan and abroad are attending the privately arranged three-day conference aimed at hammering out a strategy to end extremism in the country.

"Today we need to follow the true message of tolerance and understanding preached and practiced by the Holy Prophet," Gilani told the participants.

He said the murderers of Shahbaz Bhatti tried to create a "wedge" between Muslims and Christians. But, he said, "I warn such elements they will never succeed in their objective."

Gilani said that Islam and the Pakistani constitution ensure rights and freedom for minorities.

In their speeches, scholars vowed opposition to suicide bombings, extremism and terrorism, saying that they were struggling to spread Islam's message of peace.

Pakistan has been wracked by violence, mostly targeting security officials.

Some 4,000 people have been killed in bomb blasts, suicide and gun attacks blamed on homegrown Taliban and Al-Qaeda linked fighters since Pakistan troops stormed militants in a mosque in Islamabad in July 2007.

"Extremism, terrorism and suicide attacks are heinous acts and have nothing to do with Islam. Such acts violate what Islam stands for," senior scholar Mufti Abu Huraira Mohiuddin told the gathering.

"Some misguided individuals are violating Islamic teachings. Islam guarantees protection for all of humanity," he added.

The international community has stepped up pressure on Islamabad for reform since the sentencing to death of Christian mother-of-five Aasia Bibi in November for allegedly insulting the Prophet Mohammed, and since the killing of Taseer, who publicly backed Bibi.

Under intense pressure from religious parties, Pakistan's government has since said it had no intention of amending the law.

Liberal politicians and human rights activists in Pakistan say the blasphemy law, which carries the death penalty for the worst offences, is sometimes used to settle personal scores and encourages extremism.