Who are the Pakistani Islamists vowing 'death to blasphemers'?

A raging mob burned down two churches and several Christian homes after claims of blasphemy spread through the community.
A raging mob burned down two churches and several Christian homes after claims of blasphemy spread through the community.

An outlawed Islamist political party with the main objective of protecting Pakistan's draconian blasphemy laws and punishing blasphemers has been linked to violence against Christians and the burning of several churches

Members of the public and government sources accused the group, Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP), of whipping up a Muslim mob that attacked a Christian community in Pakistan's Punjab province after accusations that two Christians had desecrated the Koran.

The TLP denies instigating the violence and says it helped calm it down. Police say people who made announcements from mosques calling on Muslims to attack Christians later joined a so-called peace process. Here are some key facts about the group:

- The main focus of the TLP, or the movement of the Prophet's followers, is to protect Pakistan's harsh blasphemy laws. It has been involved supporting and carrying out vigilante violence action against those accused of blasphemy.

- The group, whose rallying cry is "death to blasphemers", belongs to the Barelvi Sunni sect of Islam, which is followed by a majority of Pakistan's 241 million people.

- It came to the fore in 2015 in a protest campaign to demand the release of Mumtaz Qadri, a police guard who assassinated Punjab province's governor, Salman Taseer, in 2011 over his calls to reform blasphemy legislation.

- Qadri was sentenced to death and executed in 2016. The TLP announced its entry into electoral politics at his funeral, attended by tens of thousands of people.

- The TLP won more than two million votes to emerge as the fifth largest party in a 2018 election.

- Its founder, fiery cleric Khadim Hussain Rizvi, died of a heart attack in 2020. Tens of thousands of devotees from across Pakistan attended his funeral. His son, Saad Rizvi, now leads the party.

- In 2017, the TLP demonstrated for the first time its ability to mobilise on the streets with a march on Islamabad by thousands of supporters who blocked a main highway to protest against any attempt to give voting rights to members of the Ahmadi minority community, who they term heretics.

- The standoff, in which several people were killed, ended after the government met all TLP demands in a military-brokered deal, including the resignation of the then law minister.

- In 2021, the group led violent protests over caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad in the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. It demanded the expulsion of the French ambassador, a boycott of French products and cutting trade ties with Europe.

- The TLP was outlawed later in 2021 under the government of then prime minister Imran Khan after deadly clashes with police during the protests.

- The clashes ended only after the government met most of the group's demands as par of a deal, including removing its leader from a terrorism list.

- The TLP staged more protests in October 2021, as a result of which the government to lift the ban on the party on 7 November and released Saad Rizvi on 18 November.

- These days, the TLP often backs election candidates contesting as independents who support its ideology.

© Reuters/dpa 2023