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Pakistani cleric who was called the ‘father of the Taliban’ is killed at his home

Maulana Sami-ul Haq in 2013. (Zohra Bensemra/Reuters)

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — A Pakistani cleric known as the “father of the Taliban” was stabbed and shot to death in his home outside Islamabad on Friday, his family and aides said, amid ongoing violence days after a Christian woman was acquitted of blasphemy charges.

It was not immediately clear whether the slaying of Maulana Sami ul-Haq, 82, was related to the unrest.

But it added another volatile element during nationwide protests by Muslim groups angered at a ruling by Pakistan’s Supreme Court on Wednesday that acquitted a Christian woman on charges of blasphemy. Some protesters have called for a military uprising and for judges to be killed.

Aides to Haq said he had attempted to join the protests after Friday’s prayer services but returned home because roads were blocked. Videos posted on social media showed protesters smashing and burning cars stranded on a major highway.

A government negotiating team announced it had reached an agreement with protest leaders to call off further demonstrations, but the situation remained tense.

Haq was an admired and complex figure in Pakistan’s highly religious democracy — both a fervent Islamist and a pragmatic two-time senator. He headed a deeply conservative Sunni party but was aligned with the new, liberal-leaning government of Prime Minister Imran Khan and had been working with officials to develop religious reforms. 

Pakistan’s top court acquits Christian woman facing death penalty for blasphemy

But Haq was best known as the founder and director of a seminary near the Afghan border that trained hundreds of young men to join Afghan religious fighters — first against invading Soviet forces in the 1980s and later as part of the anti-Western Taliban.

Nationwide protests broke out in Pakistan after the high court acquitted Oct. 31 a Christian woman who had been sentenced to death for blasphemy. (Video: The Washington Post)

As news spread of the murder, a range of Pakistani officials and religious figures, including the army chief and the leaders of the Pakistani Taliban, expressed shock and sorrow.

“I have great respect for Maulana Sami, and his death is a huge loss to Pakistan,” said Maulana Fazl-Ur Rehman, a leading religious politician who heads another conservative Sunni party.

Pakistan’s interior minister, Shehyar Afridi, said that he “shared the pain” of Haq’s family and that Haq’s religious and political service to the country would be long remembered.

Haq’s eldest son, Maulana Hamid ul-Haq, said that his father, who had a heart condition, was resting in bed when the attackers came, and that his bodyguard and driver were out at the time. Haq’s body was taken to the Rawalpindi district hospital, where it was shown in social media photos covered with savage stab wounds.

The news also brought a fresh outbreak of demonstrations on the darkened streets of Islamabad, where protests against the acquittal of Asia Bibi by the high court had erupted for the third day in a row, as they have in other cities. The protesters view the court decision as an insult to Islam and the prophet Muhammad, and they have called for Bibi to be put to death.

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The woman, a Christian peasant who is in her early 50s, was charged with blasphemy in 2010 after arguing with some Muslim women in a field. She was convicted and sentenced to death. The high court overturned those rulings, drawing praise from rights groups and fury from the main anti-blasphemy group.

The government tried to end the ensuing violence peacefully. Khan, now on a visit to Beijing, addressed the nation Wednesday night and appealed to the protesters not to challenge state authority. He stressed that he and all Pakistani Muslims revere Muhammad, and he called the protesters’ actions “deplorable.”

On Thursday, a government negotiating committee met until late at night with anti-blasphemy leaders. The anti-blasphemy leaders demanded that Bibi be barred from leaving the country, but the government refused, and the talks broke off.

By Friday night, with the stakes much higher, the government had accepted a list of demands that included preventing Bibi from leaving Pakistan, even though her family said she would be in danger here. It also agreed to release any arrested protesters and allow opponents to file an appeal of the high court verdict.

Earlier in the week, some commentators had chided the government for trying to appease the protesters. On Friday evening, the criticism was sharper and more urgent.

“This is a very dangerous time,” said analyst Amir Rana. He urged the government to gather all religious leaders and tell them to issue a joint statement to call off the protests. He also said the security forces “ need to move swiftly and control the volatile security situation,” or risk the outbreak of widespread sectarian strife.

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Khan’s government, which took office in August, has been torn over how to handle the unrest.

The army has said it is reluctant to intervene and regrets being “dragged” into such matters, where it may be forced to repress a religious movement that has millions of supporters.

Haq Nawaz Khan and Shaiq Hussain contributed to this report.

Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world

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