Rehman Malik told his colleagues that blocking the websites was not the right thing. - (File Photo)

ISLAMABAD Pakistan restored access to popular video website YouTube, but Facebook and 1,200 web pages remained blocked Thursday as a row about “blasphemous” content on the Internet rumbled into a second week.

A contest organised by a user of social networking site Facebook calling on people to draw the Prophet Mohammed to promote “freedom of expression” sparked a major blacklash in the conservative Muslim country of 170 million.

Islam strictly prohibits the depiction of any prophet as blasphemous and even moderate Muslims were deeply offended by the drawings that appeared on a Facebook page in an answer to the call for an “Everyone Draw Mohammed Day”.

A Pakistani court on May 19 ordered a block on Facebook until May 31, implemented by the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA), which then banned YouTube and restricted access to other websites, including Wikipedia.

Islamic activists and students took to the streets, shouting “Death to Facebook” and burned US flags, venting anger over what the PTA called “growing sacrilegious” online content.

YouTube, which is Google-owned, had said it was working to ensure the service was restored, although Google chief executive Eric Schmidt suspected that suppressing political criticism had been a factor behind the ban.

But late Wednesday, the regulatory authority in Pakistan said that YouTube -- which together with Facebook accounts for up to 25 percent of Internet traffic in the country -- was back up, although restricted.

“YouTube has been unblocked, but the links to sacrilegious content would remain inaccessible in Pakistan,” PTA spokesman Khurram Mehran told AFP.

“There are around 1,200 URLs which have been blocked... Only links containing objectionable material have been blocked,” he added.

A spokesman for the Internet Service Providers Association of Pakistan told AFP that about 550 pages on YouTube were still blocked.

“The total (number of URLs restricted) is about 1,200,” Wahaj us Siraj told AFP. “Out of those, there are about 550 URLs from YouTube only,” he said.

Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani's advisor on information technology told AFP the cabinet had agreed in principle to restrict all blasphemous links but would support moves to restore access to Facebook in court next week.

“The cabinet decided to remove such content from these websites and block blasphemous links but open all websites, including Facebook, as a total website block infringes fundamental rights,” said Sardar Latif Khosa.

“With one flick of a button you can get enormous information and education on many issues. Many ministers said that their children and their friends were using Facebook for educational purposes,” Khosa said.

The court in the eastern city of Lahore, which ordered the Facebook ban, is scheduled to convene Monday to hear a petition from Islamic lawyers and the government would present its opinion, Khosa said.

The Prophet Mohammed caricatures were universally condemned in Pakistan, but the Internet-literate urban elite criticised the blanket ban on websites.

Interior Minister Rehman Malik said pages containing blasphemous material would remain blocked but that Facebook and YouTube would be back up in days.

The controversy failed to incite a mass outpouring in Pakistan, where there are an estimated 2.5 million Facebook users, and demonstrations have not spread to other Muslim countries.

Facebook expressed disappointment at being blocked and the offending page disappeared from the social networking service Friday.

Pakistan also briefly banned YouTube in February 2008 in a similar protest against “blasphemous” cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed. -AFP

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