Khushpur: Anguished friends and relatives of a Christian Pakistani government minister assassinated because he opposed harsh blasphemy laws staged marches and demanded justice in his home village on Friday, ahead of his burial.
Federal Minister for Minorities Shahbaz Bhatti was gunned down Wednesday after being threatened for opposing the laws that impose the death penalty for insulting Islam.
He was the second Pakistani politician killed in two months over the matter — and the only Christian minister in Pakistan`s government.
Bhatti`s murder robbed Muslim-majority Pakistan`s Christians of their most prominent advocate, while underscoring the threat Islamist militancy poses to this nuclear-armed state, where the government is increasingly too weak to oppose the religious right.
In the Christian-dominated village of Khushpur, several hundred women marched with black flags and called for the escaped gunmen who attacked Bhatti to be caught and hanged.
"The killers have snatched our hero," wailed his brother Sikander Bhatti as he arrived in the village of roughly 10,000 people.
Security was extremely tight ahead of the afternoon burial ceremony, reflecting concerns that Islamist militants may attack the site, which is near a local Catholic school. A memorial service also was scheduled in the capital, Islamabad, and Pakistani TV footage from outside a prominent local church there showed the 42-year-old`s coffin being carried in.
In a sign of how fragile the current government is, ruling party leaders had largely abandoned Bhatti on the subject of the blasphemy laws, which human rights groups have long said are vague and misused to settle rivalries or abuse minorities.
Bhatti and Punjab province Gov. Salman Taseer both criticized the laws after a Christian woman was sentenced to death for allegedly committing blasphemy 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 law.
Christians make up around 5 percent of the country`s 180 million people, and along with other non-Muslim minorities have been often been persecuted. They typically live in poor parts of town, separated from Muslims, and do low-skilled, badly paid jobs.
Villagers from nearby areas, many traveling on farm vehicles, arrived in Khushpur Friday to offer their condolences. Women beat their chests and wailed in front of a large portrait of him near his family`s modest home.
Clarence Dogra, a Bhatti relative and village official, described the slain minister as a tractor who pulled the Christian community forward.
"We have been deprived of a dedicated worker, a great leader," he said.
After Taseer`s death, many Islamist clerics, and even some ordinary citizens, applauded his killer — showing how Muslim fundamentalism has spread to the mainstream. This time around, the reaction has been somewhat different, with many clerics saying a US-led conspiracy must have been what killed Bhatti.