By Mehreen Zahra-Malik
ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - An alliance of Pakistani clerics will hold demonstrations across the country against the killings of polio eradication campaign workers, leaders said on Thursday, as the death toll from attacks this week rose to nine.
Tahir Ashrafi, who heads the moderate Pakistan Ulema Council, said that 24,000 mosques associated with his organization would preach against the killings of health workers during Friday prayers.
"Neither Pakistani customs nor Islam would allow or endorse this. Far from doing something wrong, these girls are martyrs for Islam because they were doing a service to humanity and Islam," he said.
Ashrafi's words are a clear signal that some of Pakistan's powerful clergy are willing to challenge violent militants.
Gunmen on motorbikes have killed nine anti-polio campaign workers this week, including a man who died of his wounds on Thursday. Some of the dead were teenage girls.
Following the violence, the United Nations pulled back all staff involved in the vaccination campaign and Pakistani officials suspended it in some parts of the country.
"The killers of these girls are not worthy of being called Muslims or human beings," said Maulana Asadullah Farooq, of the Jamia Manzur Islamia, one of the biggest madrassas, or religious schools, in the city of Lahore.
"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."
It is not clear who is behind the killings.
Pakistani Taliban militants have repeatedly threatened anti-polio workers, saying the vaccination drive is a Muslim plot to sterilize Muslims or spy on them. But they have denied responsibility for this week's shootings.
Suspicion of the campaign surged last year after revelations that the CIA had used the cover of a fake vaccination campaign to try to gather intelligence on Osama bin Laden before he was killed in his hideout in a Pakistani town.
But many of Pakistan's most important clerics have issued fatwas, or decrees, 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 disagreement between some clerics and militants may be indicative of a wider drop in support for militancy in Pakistan, said Mansur Khan Mahsud, director of research at the Islamabad-based think-tank the FATA Research Center.
Opinion polls the centre carried out 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.
Mahsud said many people had welcomed the Taliban because they believed Islamic law would help address corruption and injustice. But as the Taliban began executing and kidnapping people, some turned against them.
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 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."
(Additional reporting by Katharine Houreld in Islamabad and Mubasher Bukhari in Lahore; Editing by Robert Birsel)