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Pakistan Moves Closer to Islam Rule

October 9, 1998

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (AP) _ Pakistani lawmakers today moved closer to creating a new Islamic order that would give the federal government sweeping powers to impose laws inspired by the Muslim holy book, the Koran.

With the opposition chanting ``shame, shame,″ the National Assembly voted 151 to 16 to pass the constitutional amendment, which has been condemned by human rights activists and constitutional experts.

Under the amendment, the federal government would be ``obliged″ to enforce prayers five times a day and collect annual tithings. The amendment also says that it would override the ``constitution, any law or judgement of any court.″

The opposition, led by former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, says the new Islamic state will deepen sectarian strife in a country wracked by religiously motivated violence.

``It is a weapon in the hands of fundamentalists, which would be misused against religious minorities,″ said Shahbaz Bhatti, a leader of the Christian Liberation Front, an advocacy group for minority Christians, who number about 2 million in Pakistan.

The opposition has also warned that, under the amendment, the government could overturn laws passed by Pakistan’s four provincial governments. Asfandyar Wali Khan, a member of the Awami National Party, said it effectively meant ``the abrogation″ of the constitution.

Before the amendment can become law it will require a two-thirds majority in the Senate, or upper house of Parliament.

``I congratulate the nation on the passage of the bill, which will help create a truly Islamic system,″ Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif said in a speech following the vote today.

While Sharif’s ruling Pakistan Muslim League has enough support in the National Assembly, or lower house of parliament, it does not have the votes to carry the amendment in the Senate.

Some political analysts said Sharif may seek a vote in a joint sitting of the National Assembly and Senate, which would likely provide the required number of votes.

Sharif promised today to protect the rights of Pakistan’s minority religious groups, barely 5 percent of the country’s 140 million people.

``Islam is a religion which has always recognized the rights of minorities,″ he said.

While the current legal system is rooted in British common law, Pakistan already has taken tentative steps toward Islamic rule.

Since the late 1970s, for example, there have been laws stipulating that four male witnesses are required for rape prosecutions. The same law also provides the death penalty by stoning for the crime of having sex outside of marriage.

Human rights and minority religious groups have fought to repeal other Islamic laws, including one that allows the death penalty for anyone who profanes Mohammed or Islam.

Outside Parliament today, representatives of women’s groups condemned the bill and waved placards reading: ``defeat this bill . . . protect . We have rights.″

Update hourly