ISLAMABAD, (AP) — Pakistan’s prime minister told mourners at a Friday funeral Mass for a Christian politician assassinated for opposing harsh blasphemy laws that they had a lost a great leader and that the government would do its “utmost” to bring his killers to justice.
Shahbaz Bhatti, the sole Christian government minister, 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 or buck the religious right.
Also Friday, a bomb went off in a mosque in northwest Pakistan, killing eight people and wounding 25 around prayer time. Police official Saif Ali Khan says the blast in Akbarpura village occurred as worshippers gathered at a shrine attached to the mosque to collect free food.
Islamist extremists frequently attack Muslims as well religious minorities to sow fear and undermine confidence in the Pakistani government.
As anguished friends and relatives of Bhatti, a 42-year-old Roman Catholic, prepared to bury him in his home village of Khushpur on Friday, mourners packed an Islamabad church in the morning to pay their respects. There, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani praised a man many described as gentle, humble and devoted to helping Pakistan’s downtrodden religious minorities.
“People like him, they are very rare,” Gilani told the overflow crowd. “All the minorities have lost a great leader. I assure you, we will try our utmost to bring the culprits to justice.”
The prime minister did not specifically mention Islamist extremists who have waged a war on a 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.
Christians are the largest religious minority in Pakistan, where 95 percent of the country’s 180 million people are Muslim. They often are the 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, though he rarely makes public appearances of any sort 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 to be somewhat sympathetic to Islamist causes.
But representatives of foreign missions were there, including U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan Cameron Munter. Security was extremely tight, reflecting concerns of a potential attack on the service.
A few hours later, a helicopter delivered Bhatti’s body to Khushpur, a Christian-dominated village of around 10,000 people in eastern Punjab province. Around 1,500 people greeted the coffin, which was draped in the flags of Pakistan and the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance.
Many shouted “Bhatti, your blood will bring a revolution!”
Earlier Friday in Khushpur, hundreds of women marched with black flags and called for the escaped assassins to be caught and hanged. Women beat their chests and wailed in front of a large portrait of Bhatti near his family’s modest home.
“The killers have snatched our hero,” wailed his brother Sikander Bhatti.
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.