Pakistan buries Christian leader

Prime minister attends funeral in Islamabad of government minister killed after calling for changes to blasphemy laws.

    Yusuf Raza Gilani, left, said 'I consider this day as a black day. All the minorities have lost a great leader' [AFP]

    Pakistan has buried Shahbaz Bhatti, a prominent Christian government minister who was assassinated after he called for changes to the country's blasphemy laws.

    Around 2,000 mourners attended the funeral at an Islamabad church on Friday, including Yusuf Raza Gilani, the prime minister.

    Angry crowd had shouted "death for killers" ahead of the burial of Bhatti who was the country's only Christian minister and had challenged a law that stipulates death for insulting Islam.

    The two gunmen who shot Bhatti, 42, left leaflets desribing him as a "Christian infidel" and signed "Taliban al-Qaeda Punjab".

    "In Islamic sharia, the sentence for blasphemers to the prophet is just death," the pamphlet said.

    Gilani said: "I consider this day as a black day. All the minorities have lost a great leader. I assure you, we will try our utmost to bring the culprits to justice."

    Pakistan's blasphemy law sanctions the death penalty for insulting Islam or the Prophet Mohammed.

    Human rights groups say the law has been used to persecute Christians and other minorities.

    Bhatti’s killing is being seen as the latest sign of how violent religious conservatism is becoming more mainstream in Pakistan, a trend which could further destabilise the nuclear-armed US ally.

    Second assassination

    Bhatti's murder was the second high profile assassination this year of a politician opposing the blasphemy law.

    In January, Salman Taseer, a provincial governor, was shot dead by one of his bodyguards.

    In a sign of mourning, black flags fluttered above houses in Khushpur, Bhatti's mainly Christian home village, 290 km south of Islamabad. Men, women and children thronged the village cemetery for the burial.

    "These terrorists must be hanged publicly to stop them from committing such brutal crimes," Hina Gill, a member of the Christian Minority Alliance, said. Many Muslims were also present at Bhatti’s burial.

    "Shahbaz Bhatti has tried hard to promote inter-faith harmony but those who want to destabilise Pakistan have killed him," said Badruddin Chaudhry, a Muslim attending the funeral.

    Bhatti was travelling in his official car without a security escort when the gunmen opened fire on him near his house in Islamabad. He died on the spot after sustaining at least eight bullet wounds.

    A Rehman Malik, the interior minister, denounced the killing but said Bhatti himself was to blame for his death.

    "I think it was his mistake," Rehman Malik said, adding that Bhatti wanted to keep a low profile. "It was his own decision."

    Mosque explosion

    In a separate incident, a bomb exploded in a mosque in the northwestern Pakistani town of Nowshera, killing at least nine people and wounding over 30, police and hospital officials said.

    Today's explosion occurs a day after a suicide blast that killed ten people [Reuters]

    The blast took place when food was being distributed to the poor after Friday prayers.

    "We have received nine dead bodies and 28 injured, there is one child among the dead," Abdul Hameed Afridi, head of the Lady Reading hospital in Peshawar, the main city in the region, told the AFP news agency.

    Adil Khan, a Nowshera police official, said: "Many people had left the mosque after prayers. Otherwise losses would have been higher."

    Witnesses described scenes of panic, with the mosque's windows and doors blown out by the strength of the explosion and blood sprayed on the building walls.

    "I was distributing rice among the devotees when suddenly a huge blast occurred and I remember seeing people running and falling in panic," Suleman Shah, a jeweller, said.

    The blast follows a suicide car bombing near Peshawar on Thursday which claimed ten lives.

    Pakistan has seen a wave of suicide attacks in the past three years, many in the country's northwest frontier region with Afghanistan, where the Pakistan military is battling Taliban fighters.

    SOURCE: Agencies


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