Pakistan on Wednesday cut off access to social networking site Facebook following a court's order to block the popular social networking website over a page featuring blasphemous caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed.
Justice Ijaz Chaudhry of the Lahore High Court issued the order to temporarily block Facebook till May 31 while acting on a petition filed by the Islamic Lawyers Forum, which had sought a complete ban on the website.
The court directed the foreign ministry to raise the issue of the blasphemous caricatures at international forums. It also asked the foreign secretary to register a protest with the concerned countries.
Acting on the court's order, the Information Technology Ministry directed the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority to block Facebook and all "other internet links displaying sacrilegious caricatures" of the Prophet Mohammed.
The ministry also directed PTA to "remain alert and watchful and block all such links displaying the profane caricatures immediately", an official statement said. The ministry asked people to inform it about "objectionable caricatures" at any website.
PTA also said it had established a "Crisis Cell" to monitor objectionable contents on websites.
Thousands of members of Facebook launched a campaign demanding a boycott of the website over the offending page called "Draw Mohammed Day" that invited people to send in caricatures of the Prophet till May 20.
The depiction of the Prophet in any form is strictly prohibited in Islam and Pakistan witnessed violent protests after blasphemous cartoons of Prophet Mohammed were carried in European newspapers in 2005.
Facebook users across Pakistan were unable to access the website on their computers by late afternoon. However, some users were able to log in to Facebook using their smartphones.
Religious Affairs Minister Hamid Saeed Kazmi strongly condemned the competition for blasphemous caricatures on Facebook. In a statement, he said the blocking of such websites would only provide a temporary sol ution as "anti-Islam elements have been hurting the sentiments of the Muslims in the past too".
An effective plan of action should be devised against the perpetrators of such acts, he said.
Kazmi urged Islamic countries to join hands for devising an effective policy so that nobody could dare publish such caricatures in future.
Religious parties like the Jamaat-e-Islami, Islami Jamiat Tulba and Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam organised protests against the caricatures on Facebook in Lahore, Kasur, Narowal, Gujranwala, Rawalpindi and Peshawar.
Hundreds of men and women joined the protests today, waving banners that condemned Facebook.
Mohammad Azeem, a student of Punjab University in Lahore, said: "An American organisation which has some 35,000 members is responsible for posting the caricatures of Prophet Mohammed on Facebook and for holding the competition on blasphemous caricatures."
People across Pakistan also received a SMS message on their cell phones that read: "Not to use Facebook on May 18, 19 and 20 so that Facebook faces big loss, so that they never dare to celebrate draw Mohammad (peace be upon him) Day."
A Pakistan Telecommunication Authority official said, "Despite thousands of requests, Facebook didn't pull down this page even though it violated Facebook's own terms of services."
Chaudhry Zulfikar, the lawyer who filed the petition on behalf of the Islamic Lawyers Forum, said that a competition on the caricatures was announced on Facebook on April 20 and it would continue till May 20 next.
Members of the website were invited to draw caricatures of the Prophet and participate in the competition, he said.
Zulfiqar said Article 2A of the constitution bars any practice against Islam in the country. Websites having various features against the injunctions of Islam have already been banned in several Islamic countries, he said.
The Lahore High Court will resume hearing the Islamic Lawyers Forum's petition from May 31. Lahore and other Pakistani cities had witnessed violent protests when blasphemous caricatures of Prophet Mohammed were first published in Europe some years ago.
Several business outlets of multinational companies were torched during these protests. Al-Qaeda claimed responsibility for a suicide car bomb attack on the Danish embassy in Islamabad in 2008 that killed six people, saying it was carried out in retaliation against the blasphemous caricatures.