Supporters grieve during funeral prayers for Punjab Governor Salman Taseer at the Governor's House in Lahore. -Reuters Photo

ISLAMABAD: The assassination of a senior member of Pakistan's ruling party over his opposition to a blasphemy law has highlighted the religious fervour that can make the Muslim country so hard to stabilise.

Salman Taseer, a liberal politician close to President Asif Ali Zardari, was shot 14 times on Tuesday by a bodyguard who was apparently incensed by the politician's opposition to the blasphemy law.

The accused killer, wearing a black hood, was transported in a blue armoured police vehicle for a court appearance.

Some people screamed “Allahu Akbar” (God is greatest) as he entered the court. Others throw rose petals and clapped.

Three hundred lawyers told a court they were willing to defend the member of a elite police force free of charge.

Rights groups say the blasphemy law is often exploited by religious conservatives as well as ordinary people to settle personal scores.

The law has widespread support in a country that is more than 95 per cent Muslim and most politicians are loath to be seen as soft on the defence of Islam. But reaction to Taseer's killing was mixed.

“According to my thinking and my faith, I cannot accept that any blasphemer of the Prophet should be allowed to live. He must be killed,” said Omar Zaman Moghul, a labour union leader who resides in Islamabad.

The blasphemy law came under the spotlight after a court in November sentenced a Christian mother of four, Asia Bibi, to death in a case stemming from a village dispute.

Taseer had visited Bibi in prison in a campaign for her release. He wrote on his Twitter page last Friday: “I was under huge pressure sure 2 cow down b4 rightist pressure on blasphemy. Refused. Even if I'm the last man standing.”

Irshad Ahmed, a cloth merchant in the southwestern city of Quetta, described Taseer's killing as “plain murder”.

“It is a disgusting act. Had he done anything wrong, he (Taseer) should have been tried. This is not an excuse for killing someone.”

Government officials have said they will investigate the killing to determine if it was part of a broader conspiracy.

Washington may look at Taseer's killing and some of the reaction to it as further signs that Pakistan is too unstable to be an effective ally against the Taliban in neighbouring Afghanistan.

Some Pakistanis interviewed in several cities criticised Taseer for his position on the law. But they said his killing was wrong, and reflected the government's failure to impose law and order in the nuclear-armed South Asian nation.

“The incident once again shows that there is complete anarchy and lack of tolerance in the country. There is no justification for such acts,” said schoolteacher Eiman Ghanchi.

“If everyone becomes a judge as well as the executioner, then how will the state survive?”

Pakistan's politics and religious extremism can prove confusing. Pro-Taliban cleric Tahir Mehmood Ashrafi condemned the killing of Taseer, saying the law was man-made and not divine.

“It (the killing) is the product of extremism and fanaticism which is damaging for an Islamic society,” said Ashrafi, who said the clerics' association which he heads has 5000 members.

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