An alliance of Pakistani clerics will hold demonstrations across the country against the killings of polio eradication campaign workers, leaders said yesterday, as the death toll from attacks this week rose to nine.
Tahir Ashrafi, who heads the moderate Pakistan Ulema Council, said that 24,000 mosques associated with his organization would preach against the killings of health workers during today’s prayers.
“Neither Pakistani customs nor Islam would allow or endorse this. Far from doing something wrong, these girls are martyrs for Islam because they were doing a service to humanity and Islam,” he said.
Ashrafi’s words are a clear signal that some of Pakistan’s powerful clergy are willing to challenge violent militants.
Gunmen on motorbikes have killed nine anti-polio campaign workers this week, including a man who died of his wounds yesterday. Some of the dead were teenage girls.
Following the violence, the UN pulled back all staff involved in the vaccination campaign and Pakistani officials suspended it in some parts of the country.
“The killers of these girls are not worthy of being called Muslims or human beings,” said Maulana Asadullah Farooq, of the Jamia Manzur Islamia, one of the biggest madrasahs, or religious schools, in the city of Lahore.
“We have held special prayers for the martyrs at our mosque and will hold more prayers after Friday prayers tomorrow. We also ask other mosques to come forward and pray for the souls of these brave martyrs,” he said.
It is not clear who is behind the killings.
Pakistani Taliban militants have repeatedly threatened anti-polio workers, saying the vaccination drive is a Muslim plot to sterilize Muslims or spy on them. However, they have denied responsibility for this week’s shootings.
Suspicion of the campaign surged last year after revelations that the CIA had used the cover of a fake vaccination campaign to try to gather intelligence on Osama bin Laden before he was killed in his hideout in a Pakistani town.
However, many of Pakistan’s most important clerics have issued a fatwa, or decree, in support of the polio campaign. Muslim countries like Saudi Arabia encourage vaccinations against polio.
The disagreement between some clerics and militants may be indicative of a wider drop in support for militancy in Pakistan, said Mansur Khan Mahsud, director of research at the Islamabad-based think tank the FATA Research Center.
Opinion polls the center carried out in ethnic Pashtun lands on the Afghan border, known as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, showed support for the Taliban dropping from 50 percent 2010 to about 20 percent in May.
Mahsud said many people had welcomed the Taliban because they believed Islamic law would help address corruption and injustice, but as the Taliban began executing and kidnapping people, some turned against them.
The killings of the health workers struck a similar nerve, Ashrafi said. The girls got a small stipend for their work, but were motivated to try to help children, he said.
“You think they went out to administer the drops despite the threats and risked their lives for 200 rupees [US$2] a day? They were there because of their essential goodness,” he said.
“Imagine what the families are going through,” he said.