Pakistan blocks off capital over anti-France protest over Macron’s comments

Pakistan authorities sealed off a major road into the capital Islamabad for a second day Monday as a far-right religious party held fresh anti-France protests.

A rally in the neighboring city of Rawalpindi which attracted up to 5,000 people on Sunday spilled over into Monday, with around a thousand protesters gathered at the roadblock preventing them from entering the capital.

Commuters faced lengthy delays on alternative routes into the city.

Mobile phone services were restored around lunchtime on Monday, after being suspended for more than 24 hours to prevent rally organizers from coordinating with each other.

Pakistan has seen small and scattered protests over the past few weeks in response to French President Emmanuel Macron’s recent remarks on Islam.

The French president spoke out after an extremist beheaded a teacher near Paris after he showed cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed during a class on free speech. All depictions of the Prophet are forbidden by Islam.

The president said the teacher “was killed because Islamists want our future.”

Macron’s comments triggered anger across the Muslim world, with tens of thousands in Pakistan, neighboring Iran and other Muslim countries in South Asia flooding the streets and organizing anti-French boycotts.

Pakistan has lodged a complaint with France over what it called a “systematic Islamophobic campaign” in the European nation.

Prime Minister Imran Khan has accused the French president of attacking the Muslim faith and urged Islamic countries to work together to counter what he called growing repression in Europe.

Blasphemy is a particularly contentious issue in ultra-conservative Pakistan, where anyone deemed to have insulted Islam or Islamic figures can face the death penalty.

Rights groups have urged the country to reform its blasphemy legislation because it is often abused to settle personal vendettas.

Sunday’s march was organized by hardline cleric Khadim Hussain Rizvi, whose party, Tehreek-Labaik Pakistan (TLP), is known for violent protests over the issue.

In 2017, the country was paralyzed by TLP rallies following the acquittal of Christian woman Asia Bibi, who had been accused of disrespecting the Prophet Mohammed.