By Syed Raza Hassan
ISLAMABAD Sept 18 (Reuters) - Unidentified gunmen on Thursday shot dead a professor of Islamic studies in Pakistan who had faced accusations of blasphemy and threats from colleagues over his moderate views, police said.
Blasphemy is a crime carrying the death sentence in the mainly Sunni Muslim nation of 180 million people.
The south Asian country is experiencing a spike in the number of cases of blasphemy, which activists attribute to its growing use as a tactic to settle grudges or extort money.
Dr Muhammad Shakil Auj, the dean of the faculty of Islamic Studies at the university in the southern port city of Karachi, had received threats following complaints that his teaching was too liberal, a colleague said.
Among the articles the 54-year-old had written was one arguing that Muslim women should be allowed to marry non-Muslim men, the colleague said.
On Thursday morning, two gunmen riding a motorcycle fired on the car taking Auj to a function at an Iranian cultural center in the city, police said.
"A bullet pierced through his head, proving fatal," senior police officer Pir Mohammad Shah told reporters.
"We are investigating the killing. It would be premature to state the motive at the moment."
In 2012, Auj had complained to police that four colleagues had threatened him and sent him text messages accusing him of blasphemy, said Deputy Superintendent of Police Nasir Lodhi.
The crime is not defined by law, so anyone can file a case saying their religious feelings have been hurt. Frequently, those accused of the crime who are not lynched on the spot can find themselves jailed indefinitely.
Judges and lawyers are often too afraid to show up in court to try the cases, as mere description of the offense can itself often be viewed as a fresh offense.
The court case was proceeding and the threats had continued, Auj's colleague said. Police said it was unclear if Thursday's shooting was linked to the case.
Another university professor, who taught English, is in jail for blasphemy after students complained about a posting he made on social media website Facebook. His lawyer, a prominent human rights activist, was shot dead by gunmen in May.
Students at the university where Auj taught held a protest to demand better protection for their teachers. The university will close for three days of mourning, a spokesman said. (Writing by Katharine Houreld; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)