ISLAMABAD - Pakistani Muslim scholars have called for mass protests across the south Asian Muslim country on Friday, December 21, in condemnation of the killings of several polio eradication campaign workers.
"Neither Pakistani customs nor Islam would allow or endorse this, Tahir Ashrafi, who heads the moderate Pakistan Ulema Council, told Reuters.
He said 24,000 mosques associated with his organization would preach against the killings of health workers during Friday prayers.
Far from doing something wrong, these girls are martyrs for Islam because they were doing a service to humanity and Islam.
At least nine polio vaccinators were killed by gunmen on motorbikes in Pakistan this week.
Among those killed were teenage girls, the youngest of whom was 17-year-old.
It is not clear who is behind the killings.
Pakistani Taliban militants have repeatedly threatened anti-polio workers, saying the vaccination drive is a western plot to sterilize Muslims or spy on them.
But the militant group has denied responsibility for this week's shootings.
Polio, a disease which once affected millions of children around the world, attacks the central nervous system, often causing paralysis, muscular atrophy and deformity. It is usually contracted through exposure to contaminated water.
Between 5 percent and 10 percent of those infected die when their breathing muscles become paralyzed.
Pakistan is one of only three countries in the world where polio remains endemic and makes annual outbreaks.
Twenty two new polio cases, of which 50 percent are from the country's northern tribal belt, have been reported in the last ten months in Pakistan.
Some 173 polio cases were reported in Pakistan in 2011, of which 69 were reported from Pakistan's tribal areas on border with Afghanistan.
Muslim scholars reiterated that the killings of the anti-polio workers run counter to the Islamic teachings.
"The killers of these girls are not worthy of being called Muslims or human beings," Maulana Asadullah Farooq, of the Jamia Manzur Islamia, one of the biggest religious seminaries in the city of Lahore, told Reuters.
"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."
Suspicion of the anti-polio campaign surged in Pakistan last year after revelations that the CIA had used the cover of a fake vaccination campaign to try to gather intelligence on Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden before he was killed in his hideout in a Pakistani town.
But many of Pakistan's most important scholars have issued fatwas in support of the polio campaign.
Muslim countries like Saudi Arabia encourage vaccinations against polio, which can kill or paralyze within hours of infection.
The anger at the killings of the polio vaccinators may be indicative of a wider drop in support for militancy in Pakistan.
Opinion polls carried out by Islamabad-based think-tank the FATA Research Center in ethnic Pashtun lands on the Afghan border, known as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), showed support for the Taliban dropping from 50 percent 2010 to about 20 percent in May 2012.
In a widely publicized incident in October, Taliban gunman shot a 15-year-old schoolgirl campaigner for girls' education in the head and wounded two of her classmates.
Schoolgirl Malala Yousufzai survived and the wave of condemnation that followed the attack prompted the Taliban to release statements justifying their action.
The killings of the health workers struck a similar nerve, Ashrafi, the head of the Pakistan Ulema Council, 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 ($2) a day? They were there because of their essential goodness," he said."Imagine what the families are going through."