KARACHI/ISLAMABAD: Federal Minister for Religious Affairs Pir Noorul Haq Qadri said on Monday the government would hold a third round of negotiations with a banned religious political party, the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan, (TLP) tonight to end week-long protests being held across Pakistan by the group's followers.
Rioting by the rightwing group has rocked the country since last Monday when TLP chief Saad Rizvi was arrested in Lahore for threatening the government with rallies if it did not expel the French envoy to Islamabad over cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) published in France last year.
The protests have paralyzed major cities and highways, leading to the deaths of six policemen, according to the government, with thousands of TLP workers under arrest, police say. On Sunday, TLP also took a number of police officers and paramilitary troops hostage, releasing 11 policemen in the early hours of Monday after a first round of negotiations with the government. The TLP says dozens of its supporters have also been killed but hospital and government officials have not verified this information.
The riots have also prompted the French embassy last week to recommend all its nationals temporarily leave the country.
“We believe in negotiations and it’s our policy,” Qadri said in a policy statement in the National Assembly. “We held negotiations [with the protesters] yesterday, in the morning and the third session will be held tonight after the Tarawih prayer.”
The minister assured parliament the deadlock with protesters would be resolved through negotiations as per the aspirations of the nation.
“No political, democratic and elected government can afford such things and whatever happened in the past few days is regrettable to everyone,” he said.
Meanwhile, a nine-member TLP delegation will meet the party’s chief Rizvi in jail today, Monday, a spokesperson for the group said.
“A nine member delegation of the religious scholars will go to Kot lakhpat jail to meet the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan chief Saad Hussain Rizvi,” TLP spokesperson Pir Ejaz Ashrafi, told Arab News.
TLP chief Rizvi has called on the government to honor what he said was a commitment it made in February to his party to expel the French envoy before April 20 over the publication in France of depictions of the Prophet (pbuh).
The government of Prime Minister Imran Khan says it had only committed to debating the matter in Parliament.
In a veiled reference to TLP on Monday, Khan said: “ln our country, it is a great misfortune that many times our political parties and religious parties use Islam wrongly and use it such that they do damage to their own country.”
Addressing the groundbreaking ceremony for the Margalla Highway in Islamabad, the PM said hurting people, properties and infrastructure would only hurt our own people and “will not have any impact on them [blasphemers].”
He said he had launched a global campaign against Islamophobia and blasphemy, and would continue the effort: “At some point, people in the West will fear before insulting the honor of our Prophet (pbuh).”
On Sunday evening, Information Minister Fawad Hussain Chaudhry had said the government was forced to launch an army operation against protesters after they kidnapped law enforcement officials.
“The government believes in negotiations but can’t be blackmailed,” he said. “The operation was started after police and Rangers personnel were kidnapped ... [Prime Minister] Imran Khan has the strongest affection with the Prophet (PBUH) and he has talked about this at every forum.”
Earlier on Sunday, a police spokesman, Arif Rana, said the operation against the TLP had been halted as the attackers were armed with petrol bombs and a tanker with 50,000 liters of petrol.
By Sunday evening, he said the situation was “at a standstill” with protesters sitting on roadsides with sticks and petrol bombs in their hands and law enforcement personnel standing guard.
Last week, the interior ministry said it was moving to have the TLP party banned for attacking law enforcement forces and disrupting public life during its protests. The interior ministry’s decision has been approved by the federal cabinet but needs to be ratified by the Supreme Court for the party to be officially dissolved.
In October 2020, protests broke out in several Muslim countries over France’s response to a deadly attack on a teacher who showed cartoons mocking the Prophet Muhammad to his pupils during a civics lesson.
During similar protests in Pakistan, the government negotiated with the TLP and met a number of its demands, including that it would debate expelling the French ambassador in parliament.
A deadline to make that parliamentary move expires on April 20.
Rizvi became the leader of the Tehreek-e-Labiak Pakistan party in November after the sudden death of his father, Khadim Hussein Rizvi.
Rizvi’s party wants the government to boycott French products and expel the French ambassador under an agreement signed by the government with Rizvi’s party in February.
Tehreek-e-Labiak and other religious parties denounced French President Emmanuel Macron since October last year, saying he tried to defend caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) as freedom of expression. Macron’s comments came after a young Muslim beheaded a French school teacher who had shown caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) in class.
The images had been republished by the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo to mark the opening of the trial over the deadly 2015 attack against the publication for the original caricatures. That enraged many Muslims in Pakistan and elsewhere who believe those depictions are blasphemous.
Rizvi’s party gained prominence in Pakistan’s 2018 federal elections, campaigning to defend the country’s blasphemy law, which calls for the death penalty for anyone who insults Islam. It also has a history of staging protests and sit-ins to pressure the government to accept its demands.
In November 2017, Rizvi’s followers staged a 21-day protest and sit-in after a reference to the sanctity of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) was removed from the text of a government form.