A fugitive anti-state Pakistani extremist leader has asked followers to find and execute “blasphemers” in the country for insulting Islam and its Prophet Muhammad.

In a video message sent Saturday to VOA and other media outlets, Fazlullah Khurasani, who heads the militant Tehrike-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), issued the threat without identifying the alleged blasphemers.

TTP, which is commonly referred to as the Pakistani Taliban, has been waging deadly attacks for years against the state, killing tens of thousands of Pakistanis, including security forces.

“It is the right time to seek them out and finish them. Our fighters are looking for them and we also need youth in schools and colleges, or wherever they are to take revenge and punish them for insulting our Prophet Muhammad,” Khurasani said.

Flanked by other commanders and masked security guards, the militant leader spoke in native Pashto with subtitling in Urdu, Pakistan’s national language.

It was not immediately known where Khurasani recorded his message because Pakistani authorities maintain that he and his fighters have taken refuge in neighboring Afghanistan after fleeing military operations on the Pakistan side of the border separating the two countries.

Authorities already under fire

The militant threat comes at a time when authorities in Pakistan already are under fire for taking certain actions that critics believe are fueling religious intolerance and extremist behavior in the society.

Five social media bloggers had been briefly detained, allegedly by Pakistani security agencies, for placing “blasphemous content” online, though the government has denied its involvement.

The young men re-emerged and returned to their families last month after about four weeks and before fleeing Pakistan.

Some of the bloggers have since alleged through media interviews they were taken away by state institutions for being critical of the powerful military and refuted blasphemy charges as fabricated.

On Friday, the chief judge of the high court in Islamabad instructed the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) to continue with its probe into online “blasphemous content” and arrange for bringing the five bloggers back to Pakistan in case any evidence was found against them.

Anti-blasphemy crackdown

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif ordered authorities last month to crack down on suspects in Pakistan involved in posting “blasphemous material” on social media.

The government also has approached Facebook and Twitter to seek their assistance in discouraging Pakistanis from indulging in such “offensive” activities from abroad.

Critics, however, see the crackdown as an attempt to deter political descent in the name of religion, and they fear it is encouraging Islamist militants.

Separately, an anti-terrorism court in the Pakistani capital last week turned three online bloggers into the custody of the FIA so it can investigate blasphemy charges against them and determine whether they should be formally tried and punished.

Rights activists have accused successive governments of using the country’s blasphemy laws to deter political opponents and media commentators. The laws carry severe punishments, including the death penalty for insulting the Prophet Muhammad.

In its 2016 annual report, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom observed that for years, the Pakistani government has failed to protect citizens, minority and majority alike, from sectarian and religiously-motivated violence,

“USCIRF is aware of nearly 40 individuals currently sentenced to death or serving life sentences for blasphemy in Pakistan,” it read.

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