In recent weeks, headlines in Pakistan have been dominated by the burning to death or shooting of women who were murdered in the name of defending their family’s honor.
But some Pakistani clerics have now issued a fatwa, or religious decree, condemning these so-called "honor killings" as against the teaching of Islam. They declared anyone committing such crimes as "heretics."
The June 12 ruling by the Sunni Ittehad Council comes after a string of particularly shocking killings, including the burning to death of three young women, for allegedly violating their family’s honor.
They are the most recent victims among hundreds of Pakistanis, most women and girls, who are murdered every year by relatives after being accused of damaging a family's honor by trying to choose partners against their family's wishes or refusing to marry older men.
"Burning women alive for marrying by their choice is against the teachings of Islam,” the council, composed of some 100 prominent clerics, said in its ruling.
"It seems we are moving toward an age of barbarism,” the rare ruling said about what human rights activists have called an alarming issue in the Muslim-majority country of 190 million.
The council warned against defending such acts. "Considering any killing in the name of honor to be justified is heresy," it said in a press statement.
The Sunni Ittehad Council is affiliated with the Barelvi sect of Sunni Islam in South Asia. Its adherents claim to be the largest sect in Pakistan, and the Barelvis are the most numerous in the eastern Punjab Province that is home to more than 70 percent of the country’s population.
The council called on Islamabad to amend the Qisas and Diyat laws that allow family members to "forgive" perpetrators in killings over honor. Sometimes charges are also dropped after "blood money" is paid to the victim’s family.
In the latest incident of honor killing, a father killed his daughter and her husband because he disapproved of their marriage in the eastern city of Lahore, the capital of Punjab, last week.
Also in Lahore Zeenat Rafiq, 18, was burned to death earlier this month for defying her family to marry a man of her choice. Police officials say they arrested her mother Parveen Rafiq for the killing.
Lawmakers are calling on Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to act on his February pledge to pass long-pending legislation on the issue.
With reporting by Reuters