Pakistan prayer time initiative

The government of Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province has unveiled a plan to shut public and private businesses during prayer times.

The plan replicates the Saudi Arabian model, enabling shops and businesses to close for a 20-minute prayer break.

Last week, the NWFP government was criticised by human rights groups for trying to introduce new Islamic laws.

So far no date has been given for the new initiative to take effect, but officials stress it will be voluntary.

Education not coercion

The plan - which is certain to trigger heated political debate - has been put forward by the six religious parties of the Muttahida Majlis Amal (MMA) alliance.

It was unveiled on Monday, and Chief Minister Akram Khan Durrani said it was part of a plan to enforce a truly Islamic system in the province.

He said the new system would facilitate businessmen and customers by giving them the chance to offer prayers at the same time.

A similar system is already in force in Saudi Arabia.

No date for the Pakistani version has been announced, but the chief minister said religious scholars and government officials would decide on the timetable.

Mr Durrani made it clear that no commercial or official building without a mosque would be allowed to participate in the scheme.

'Talebanised society'

Officials said the new plan would be enforced through motivation, education and self-example rather then coercion.

The BBC's Haroon Rashid in Peshawar says that the new announcement was welcomed by businessmen, but they called on the government to ensure that only one prayer time was implemented by Sunni and Shia mosques.

Earlier this month, human rights activists in the province strongly criticised a proposal put forward by the MMA to establish an Ombudsman's office which would ensure that Islamic law was being implemented.

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan said it amounted to an effort to enforce "Mullah's martial law" and "Talebanise" society.

The provincial government also announced this month that its employees were banned from attending music and dance functions in which "Islamic moral values were not regarded."

Our correspondent says that the latest proposal may be problematic not just because of the different timings for Sunni and Shia prayers, but because there is also considerable variance within the Sunni community itself as to when prayers are held.

The head of the NWFP Traders' Association, Haji Mohammad Halim Jan, told the BBC that shutting shops should not be compulsory.

He said business and financial transactions should cease during prayer timings - but to close them down and then re-open them five times a day would be impractical.