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Friday, 16 June, 2000, 08:40 GMT 09:40 UK
Musharraf seeks greater tolerance
Islamic students in Pakistan
The religious lobby is strong in Pakistan
By Owen Bennett-Jones in Islamabad

Pakistan's military ruler, General Pervez Musharraf, has appealed to religious leaders to pay more attention to human rights and end sectarian violence in the country.

He was speaking at the Seerat conference, an annual avent held on the birthday of the prophet Mohammed.

Friday is a national holiday in Pakistan with shops and businesses closed throughout the country, and processions to mark the prophet's birthday.

This year's celebrations come at a time when the role of religion in Pakistan is the subject of considerable public debate.

General Musharraf
Gen Musharraf wants an end to sectarian violence

The interior minister was recently quoted by the New York Times as saying that Pakistan ought to become a progressive, modern and tolerant, secular state.

That provoked a strong, hostile reaction from religious groups in the country, which argued that Pakistan was established as an Islamic state and not a secular one.

The interior minister then said there had been a mix-up and that he believed Pakistan is, after all, an Islamic state.

U-turn

General Musharraf recently performed a U-turn when confronted by the religious groups.

He had announced a procedural change to the controversial blasphemy laws, but in the face of religious opposition backed down.

The next test of the military's intentions regarding the role of Islam in Pakistan concerns the timing of the weekly day off. Religious groups want the current weekly holiday of Sunday moved to Friday.

Liberal and some business circles in Pakistan oppose the idea and General Musharraf has not yet taken a definitive line on the issue.

In general terms, Pakistan's military has given some indication that it is committed to a policy of moderation in religious matters, but it also seems unwilling to take on a religious lobby which is reknowned for its ability to organise street power.

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See also:

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