The Pakistani government plans to change its blasphemy law to check its misuse by extremist groups, officials said on Thursday.
The law, which carries the death penalty for insulting Islam or its prophet, is a highly sensitive issue in Pakistan, which is more than 95 percent Muslim. Previous governments have failed to reform the law because of opposition from powerful hardline Islamic groups.
Liberal and secular groups have called for the repeal of the blasphemy law altogether, which they say discriminates against religious minorities.
However, the U.S.-allied government of President Asif Ali Zardari, which is fighting an Islamist insurgency, says it plans to reform the law instead.
"We are holding consultative meetings with representatives of minorities and political parties, as well as with Muslim clerics," Minister for Religious Affairs Shahbaz Bhatti told Reuters.
"Some elements misuse the law to create violence and disharmony in society. To stop that misuse, we are proposing legislation."
He declined to say when the government planned to propose the changes.
Blasphemy convictions are common in Pakistan, although the death sentence has never been carried out. Most convictions are thrown out on appeal or because of lack of evidence.
However, angry mobs have killed many people, mostly members of religious minorities.
Last year, eight Christians were killed in central Punjab by a mob after blasphemy accusations, which officials said were spread by Islamist extremist groups linked to al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Seven of the victims were burned to death.
Religious minorities, mostly Christians, account for roughly four percent of Pakistan's 170 million people.
Christians have long complained about the law because it offers no protection if a Muslim accuses them of violations such as tearing a page of the Koran, and many accusations are leveled to settle personal scores. Just making an accusation is usually considered sufficient evidence to register a case.
Bhatti declined to elaborate on the proposed amendments but a government official said authorities were exploring "procedural changes" that might provide for registering a case only after an investigation and on the orders of a judge.
An official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the government may also propose that a suspect be prosecuted only if it is established that he had "intentionally and willfully" committed blasphemy.
Islamic parties have opposed changes in the law because of suspicions that pro-Western, liberal groups seek to dilute Pakistan's Islamic identity.
Mufti Muneeb-ur-Rehman, a prominent cleric, said they were ready to cooperate with authorities to stop extremist groups abusing the law.
"If they bring about change to stop its misuse with our consultation than it's okay," he said. "But if they did it unilaterally, then it will promote hatred and extremism."
The law was introduced by Pakistan's former military ruler General Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq in the 1980s in an effort to bring Pakistani law more in line with Islamic principles.
Another military ruler, General Pervez Musharraf, tried to reform these laws in 2000, months after he seized power in a coup, but backed down after widespread protests from hardline Islamic groups.