Lahore: A group of Pakistani clerics has issued a fatwa, or religious ruling, declaring "honour killing" over perceived damage to a family's reputation against the teaching of Islam, and anyone who carries out such an attack a heretic.
Hundreds of Pakistanis, the vast majority women and girls, are murdered every year by relatives after being accused of damaging a family's honour. Most cases involve young women trying to choose partners against a family's wishes.
The ruling by the Sunni Ittehad Council, which includes more than 100 prominent clerics, comes after a string of particularly shocking killings including the burning to death by a mother of a 16 year-old girl who eloped with a young man.
"It seems we are moving towards an age of barbarism," the council said in its fatwa issued on Sunday, a rare edict on the problem in the Muslim majority country of 190 million people.
"Burning women alive for marrying by their choice is against the teachings of Islam", it added.
The council is affiliated with the Barelvi sect of Sunni Islam, the largest sect in Pakistan, and it holds significant influence in Punjab province, where half of Pakistanis live.
"Considering any killing in the name of honour to be justified is heresy," the council said in a press release.
Last Friday, a father in the eastern city of Lahore, the capital of Punjab, killed his daughter and her husband because he disapproved of their marriage.
Last month, a 16-year-old girl accused of helping a young couple elope was killed and her body set on fire, in a case that again brought into the national spotlight.
Last year, more than 500 men and women were murdered in such, according to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. The toll this year, as of Monday, was 233, the group said.
Most suspects in honour killings are never prosecuted.
The religious council called on the government to amend laws that allow family members to "forgive" perpetrators in killings over honour, which means charges are often dropped.
In February, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif praised an Oscar-winning Pakistani film on honour killings, raising hope among activists that long-pending legislation on the issue would be passed. However, no progress has been made.