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Pak declares holiday for peaceful protests against anti-Islam film

The Pakistan government today declared Friday a national holiday in honour of the Muslim Prophet Mohammed and called for peaceful protests against a US-made film deemed insulting to Islam.

world Updated: Sep 19, 2012 23:30 IST

The Pakistan government on Wednesday declared Friday a national holiday in honour of the Prophet Mohammed and called for peaceful protests against a US-made film deemed insulting to Islam.

As thousands took to the streets for another day of demonstrations against the "Innocence of Muslims" movie, Information Minister Qamar Zaman Kaira said the cabinet had decided to make Friday an official "day of expression of love for the Prophet".

The film, made by extremist Christians in the United States, has triggered more than a week of furious protests and attacks across the Muslim world, which have killed least 30 people.

The government's sudden announcement came after religious parties -- who have dominated dozens of rallies against the movie across Pakistan -- called for a day of protest on Friday to denounce the film.

A group of lawyers demonstrating in Islamabad on Wednesday also slammed the government's "criminal silence" on the issue.

"We will send a message to the world that Muslims of Pakistan are protesting about this, and we won't tolerate even a single sentence against the dignity of the holy prophet," Kaira told a news conference.

"We should make peaceful protest and pray to god to remove the weaknesses of the Muslim people, because of which we are facing this situation."

Kaira said Pakistan respected freedom of speech but "hateful material" should not be allowed.

"The argument that the blasphemous film is part of freedom of expression or speech is not viable and we expect (of the) international community that it will take all steps and make laws that avoid such incidents in future," he said.

Insults to Islam are an extremely serious matter in Pakistan, a conservative country where 97 percent of the population are Muslims, and prompt furious outpourings of public anger.

Six people were killed in a suicide bombing outside the Danish embassy in Islamabad in 2008, in an attack al Qaeda claimed as revenge for Danish newspapers printing cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed.

With a general election due in months, the ruling Pakistan People's Party (PPP) will have been keen to avoid falling behind on a red-hot topic of public opinion.

"It is a popular campaign against the video and the government does not want to show that it is on the other side," Jafar Ahmed of the Pakistan Study Centre at the University of Karachi, told AFP.

"They said we should also join because they knew others were doing it. They don't want to be on the receiving end."

Around 1,000 students from the student wing of the main fundamentalist Jamaat-e-Islami party, some carrying bamboo sticks and clubs, took to the streets in the eastern city of Lahore, chanting anti-US slogans and burning the American flag.

A similar number led by a Sunni Muslim group demonstrated in Karachi, burning an effigy of US President Barack Obama.

In Islamabad, around 500 protesting lawyers broke through a gate to the heavily-guarded diplomatic enclave, chanting anti-US slogans and castigating the Pakistan government for failing to take strong action against the film.

A US flag was laid on the ground and the protesting lawyers walked over it one by one. Later they burnt the flag before the rally ended peacefully.

Police said rallies were staged in more than a dozen small towns in central Punjab province where local traders observed strikes to express solidarity with the protesters.

Pakistan, along with Afghanistan and Bangladesh, blocked video-sharing website YouTube this week after it failed to remove the offending film.

Embassies, consulates, cultural centres and international French schools in around 20 countries will be closed on Friday for fear of being targeted in demonstrations following weekly prayers.

First Published: Sep 19, 2012 21:44 IST