Pakistanis bury slain Christian, warn of extremism

Khushpur, Pakistan - Men beat their bare chests, women wailed and church leaders warned Pakistan was sinking under the weight of extremism on Friday as they buried a Christian politician assassinated for opposing harsh blasphemy laws.

Shahbaz Bhatti, the sole Christian government minister in this Muslim-majority country, was shot dead Wednesday after receiving threats for campaigning to change 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 Pakistan's northwest village of Akbarpura killed eight people, another sign of the militants' strength.

Thousands of people thronged the roads in Khushpur, a Christian-dominated village of around 10,000 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.

Catholic religious leaders read prayers and Bible verses as black flags fluttered nearby and Bhatti's picture loomed over the crowd, many of whom expressed anger over the discrimination they experience. They warned that rising religious extremism could destroy Pakistan, but also told mourners that God would mete out justice if the government didn't.

"Christ taught us patience, so don't lose patience," said Alexander Malik, bishop of Lahore.

Bhatti's body was later laid to rest in a cemetery next to that of his father, who died around two months ago.

Khushpur, a modest village, has been home to several prominent Christians. They include Bishop John Joseph, who killed himself to protest a death sentence given to a Christian convicted of blaspheming Islam when he praised Salman Rushdie's book "The Satanic Verses."

Earlier Friday, mourners in the capital, Islamabad, packed a Roman Catholic church for a funeral Mass for Bhatti, who had served as the minister for minority affairs. Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani was on hand to praise the 42-year-old whom many have described as gentle, humble and devoted to helping Pakistan's downtrodden minorities.

"People like him, they are very rare," Gilani told an audience that included U.S. Ambassador Cameron Munter. "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.

Taseer and Bhatti said the law should be amended to prevent its abuse. As things stand, people have been arrested for acts such as throwing away the business card of a man whose first name was Muhammad, the name of Islam's prophet. Although no one has actually been put to death by the state, people who are accused of blasphemy can spend years in prison as their case winds through courts - or be killed by extremists when freed.

But the ruling Pakistan People's party decided to abandon Bhatti and Taseer, both leading members, on the subject, a sign of how scared it is of upsetting powerful Islamist groups. Gilani has repeatedly insisted the government would not change the laws.

Bhatti's assassination drew international condemnation, including from the Vatican and President Barack Obama. Pamphlets left at the scene of the crime said the Taliban and al-Qaida took responsibility. But some hard-liners in the Pakistani religious community and the media have suggested a U.S.-led conspiracy was behind the murder.

In Washington, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said the U.S. had expressed concerns about Bhatti's security. But he declined to answer a reporter's question about whether the U.S. had recommended that an armored vehicle be provided to Bhatti in the weeks preceding his assassination.

"I will not comment on that other than to say that we shared our genuine concerns about his security," Crowley said in Washington.

"We are quite aware that he had received multiple death threats," Crowley said. "We encouraged the government of Pakistan to do everything possible to provide for his security."

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.

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.