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Pakistan Christians Bury Murdered Leader Shahbaz Bhatti

ICC Note

Christians in Pakistan bury their hero today. Shahbaz Bhatti was the sole Christian minister in the government of Pakistan and tirelessly fought for the rights of Christians. He was killed by Islamists on Wednesday.

03/04/2011 Pakistan (BBC News)-Thousands of Pakistani mourners have attended the funeral of murdered minorities minister Shahbaz Bhatti.

Mr Bhatti, a Christian, was shot dead on Wednesday by the Taliban after he urged reform to blasphemy laws.

There were emotional scenes as several thousand Christians buried their leader in his home village near Faisalabad.

Earlier, hundreds turned out for a church service in the capital. Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani told them his colleague had been “very rare”.

Wednesday’s assassination in Islamabad was the second this year of a Pakistani politician who wanted to reform the controversial blasphemy laws.

The blasphemy law carries a death sentence for anyone who insults Islam. Critics say it has been used to persecute minority faiths.

Prayers were said at church in Islamabad before the coffin was flown to Mr Bhatti’s home village for burial Observers say Mr Bhatti’s killing leaves Pakistan’s Christians without their most prominent voice and threatens to silence debate on the blasphemy law. The government is accused of giving in to religious hardliners.

Stringent security precautions were in place for the funeral.

Roads were closed and police and paramilitary forces deployed around Fatima Church in the capital for the service for Mr Bhatti, 42, who was a Roman Catholic.

The prime minister praised a man he said was devoted to helping the downtrodden.

“People like him, they are very rare,” Mr Gilani told the packed congregation. “All the minorities have lost a great leader. I assure you, we will try our utmost to bring the culprits to justice.”

“The killers have snatched our hero,” said Mr Bhatti’s brother, Sikander, the Associated Press (AP) reports.

So large were the crowds that the burial was delayed by several hours, the BBC’s M Ilyas Khan reports from Khushpur.

Pakistan is observing three days of mourning and there have been protests by angry and frightened Christians across the country, condemning the killing.

Christians say their community, and other minorities, no longer feel secure. Few believe government promises the killers will be brought to justice.

“They have neither the ability nor the will,” one Khushpur mourner, Nasreen Gill, told AP.

The BBC’s Syed Shoaib Hasan in Karachi says Mr Bhatti has become a martyr for the local Christian community because of his outspoken stance on the blasphemy laws.

But our correspondent says the government seems to lack his courage to take steps to amend what many are now calling Pakistan’s black law, and the liberal intelligentsia feel under siege.

In January, an MP from the governing Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), Sherry Rehman, dropped a bill to reform the law, because her party leaders would not back it.

She has all but disappeared from view amid concerns for her security.

Security questions
Mr Bhatti’s murder has left his family and other Christians devastated The apparent ease with which Mr Bhatti, a PPP leader, was killed has caused great concern.

He had just left his mother’s home in a suburb of the capital when several gunmen surrounded his vehicle and riddled it with bullets in daylight, say witnesses.

The minister’s driver was spared before the gunmen escaped.

Mr Bhatti was without guards or the security escort that is standard for all Pakistani ministers, and it is not clear why. Police and federal officials are investigating.

Even before his assassination, Mr Bhatti had predicted his own death in a chilling video. He told the BBC he had been denied more protection but would defy the death threats from Islamist militants for his efforts to reform the blasphemy law.

The law has been in the spotlight since a Christian, Asia Bibi, was sentenced to hang in Punjab last November. She denies insulting the Prophet Muhammad.

Christians make up an estimated 1.5% of Pakistan’s 185 million population.

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