By Worthy News Asia Service
ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN (Worthy News)-- Christians warned Friday, March 4, that Pakistan should stand up against religious extremism at an emotionally charged funeral for the country's Minister for Minorities Affairs Shahbaz Bhatti, who was assassinated after publicly opposing controversial blasphemy legislation.
The 42-year-old Bhatti, the only Christian in the cabinet, was shot and killed outside his parents home in capital Islamabad Wednesday, March 2.
He was the second politician in as many months to be killed for criticizing the blasphemy laws after a Christian woman, Asia Bibi, was sentenced to death under them last year.
On January 4, Punjab province Governor Salman Taseer, was shot dead by one of his bodyguards, who said he was angry about the governor's stance on the laws.
EXTRA JUDICIAL KILLINGS
"People have been killed extra judicially, people are in prison," said Bhatti recently explaining his anger about the blasphemy legislation. "And most of the basis in the cases of blasphemy are personal disputes, economic reasons; political, religious and other differences. And anybody can go to the police to register a case against religious blasphemers and there is no mechanism to punish those people who file false cases."
Shortly before he died, Bhatti told BosNewsLife however that he had been threatened because of his campaign against the blasphemy laws and Bibi's death sentence.
On Friday, March 4, in a sign of mourning, black flags were seen atop houses in Khushpur, Bhatti's mainly Christian home village, 290 km (180 miles) south of Islamabad. An estimated 5,000 men, women and children packed the village cemetery for the burial.
"The message of Shahbaz Bhatti is to purge Pakistan of killers and hatred," Reverend Emmanuel Pervez told thousands of men and women gathered in Bhatti's village in central Pakistan for mass prayers."We will not accept oppression ... Bhatti's message is that we should not let Pakistan be defamed."
MORE ATTACKS REPORTED
Yet, as Bhatti was mourned and buried, a bomb blast at a mosque in Pakistan's northwest village of Akbarpura killed eight people, underscoring the militants' strength. And, amid growing pressure from religious groups, Pakistan's Prime Minister Raza Gilani early this week already publicly stated that the government "never intended" to change the blasphemy law, despite Bhatti's calls for new legislation.
Speaking at a separate church service for Bhatti in the capital Islamabad on Friday, March 4, however, he pledged to fight extremism. "All the minorities have lost a great leader," Gilani said in the church. "I assure you, we will try our utmost to bring the culprits to justice."
Three gunmen who sped away in a white Suzuki Mehran car, according to police and witnesses, left leaflets at the scene in which terror groups al-Qaida and the Pakistani Taliban Movement in Punjab province claimed responsibility for the assassination.
They blamed the government for putting Bhatti, an "infidel Christian," in charge of an unspecified committee, apparently in reference to his support for changing the blasphemy laws.
"With the blessing of Allah, the mujahedeen will send each of you to hell," said the note, which did not name any other targets.
'DRIVEN BY FAITH'
Bhatti's friend Stuart Windsor, national director of advocacy group Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), told BosNewsLife that the minister "was driven by his deep faith, and he was a patriot in the truest sense, one who sought the best for his country."
He said Bhatti realized "that the reform and repeal of the abusive blasphemy laws, and the promotion of inter-faith harmony, would benefit not only the minorities he represented, but all of Pakistani society."
Windsor stressed it was now crucial for the international community to "honor Shahbaz Bhatti’s memory not just in words, but in lasting solidarity with all those who, like Bhatti, sought to foster the society envisaged by Pakistan’s founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, characterized by pluralism, freedom of religion and the rule of law.”
Christians comprise less than five percent of the country's 180 million people who are mainly Muslim.
Church groups say Pakistani Christians are often victims of discrimination and persecution, and they typically live in poor parts of towns and do low-skilled, badly paid jobs.