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Prayers for patience as Bhatti buried

world Updated: Mar 04, 2011 19:46 IST

AP
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Shirtless men beat their chests and women wailed in grief as the body of a Christian politician killed for opposing Pakistan's harsh blasphemy laws was buried in his home village on Friday. In the capital, the prime minister promised mourners at a funeral Mass that the government would do its utmost to bring the assassins to justice.

Shahbaz Bhatti, the sole Christian government minister in Pakistan, was shot dead Wednesday after being threatened for opposing laws that impose the death penalty for insulting Islam. He was the second Pakistani politician killed in two months over the matter, and his death underscored the perils facing a government that is increasingly too weak to govern well in the face of rising Islamist extremism.

As Bhatti was being mourned, a bomb blast at a mosque in the northwestern village of Akbarpura killed eight people, another sign of the militants' strength.

Thousands of people thronged the road in Khushpur, a Christian-dominated village of around 10,000 people in eastern Punjab province, chanting slogans demanding justice as Bhatti's body was flown in and driven through in an ambulance covered with rose petals.

A Catholic religious leader read prayers and Bible verses counseling patience as black flags fluttered nearby and Bhatti's picture loomed over the crowd. Afterward, his body was laid to rest in a cemetery next to that of his father, who died around two months ago.

Earlier Friday, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani visited an overflow crowd of mourners at a Roman Catholic church in Islamabad to praise the late 42-year-old minister for minority affairs, a man many have described as gentle, humble and devoted to helping Pakistan's downtrodden minorities.

"People like him, they are very rare," Gilani said. "I assure you, we will try our utmost to bring the culprits to justice." Gilani did not specifically mention Islamist extremists who have waged a war on the country, though he has issued statements denouncing them in recent days. Gilani also avoided mentioning the blasphemy laws, which rights groups have long deplored as vague and misused to persecute minorities or settle rivalries. Christians are the largest religious minority in Pakistan, where 95 percent of the country's 180 million people are Muslim. They are often victims of discrimination and persecution, and they typically live in poor parts of towns and do low-skilled, badly paid jobs. Bhatti and Punjab province Gov. Salman Taseer both criticized the blasphemy laws after a Christian woman was sentenced to death under them last year. On Jan. 4, Taseer was shot dead by one of his bodyguards, who said he was angry about the governor's stance on the laws.

But the ruling party abandoned Bhatti and Taseer on the subject, a sign of how scared they are of upsetting powerful Islamist groups. Gilani has repeatedly insisted the government would not change the laws.

President Asif Ali Zardari did not attend the funeral Mass or the burial service in Khushpur, though he rarely makes public appearances out of fear for his life. Also notably missing were top leaders of the main opposition party, the Pakistan Muslim League-N, which is considered somewhat sympathetic to Islamists. Bhatti's assassination drew international condemnation, including from the Vatican and President Barack Obama, even as some hard-liners in the Pakistani religious community and media suggested a U.S.-led conspiracy was behind the murder.

Despite Gilani's promises, few people in Khushpur had any confidence Friday that the Pakistani government, which already has a poor record of catching militants, would make the case of a Christian a priority.

"They have neither the ability nor the will," said mourner Nasreen Gill.