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Pakistan military: ‘patience’ tested ahead of mass protests

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ISLAMABAD: Pakistan’s powerful military warned Friday its patience had been thoroughly tested after being threatened by Islamist hard-liners enraged by the acquittal of a Christian woman for blasphemy, as the country braced for more mass protests.
Spokesman Asif Ghafoor said the armed forces’ tolerance had been taken to its “threshold” after hard-liners called for a mutiny against its top brass earlier this week in response to the Supreme Court’s dismissal of blasphemy charges against Asia Bibi — ending her eight-year ordeal on death row.
Mobile services in major cities across Pakistan were down as religious parties prepared to hold another day of demonstrations against the Supreme Court’s decision.
“We are tolerating remarks against us but action can be taken according to the law and constitution,” the spokesman told state media.
“Don’t force us into taking an action,” he added.
Blasphemy is a massively inflammatory charge in Muslim-majority Pakistan, where even unproven allegations of insulting Islam and its Prophet Muhammad can provoke death at the hands of vigilantes.
The protests are being largely led by the Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan party, which is known for its hardline stance on blasphemy issues.
Officials said talks with the protesters were ongoing ahead of nationwide protests set to kick off after Friday prayers — the holiest day of the Islamic week and a time when the size of demonstrations can often swell.
Several mainstream religious parties were also set to hold separate demonstrations in major cities following prayers.
Since Wednesday’s verdict TLP has been holding sit-ins in cities across the country with supporters blocking major traffic thoroughfares, causing gridlock and school closures in key hubs like Lahore, Islamabad, and Karachi.
TLP, founded in 2015, blockaded the capital Islamabad for several weeks last year calling for stricter enforcement of Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy laws.
That protest forced the resignation of the federal law minister and paved the way for the group to poll more than 2.23 million votes in the July 25 general election, in what analysts called a “surprisingly” rapid rise.
The protests come after Prime Minister Imran Khan issued a forceful rebuke to the TLP in a nationally televised address in the ruling’s wake, saying the government would not tolerate violent protests.
The former cricketer left hours after the address for a state visit to China, where he will likely seek financial assistance from Beijing to shore up the country’s deteriorating finances.
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