Hundreds attend Pakistani minister’s funeral

KHUSHPUR, March 4 (AFP): Hundreds of chanting Christians bearing black flags gathered in a dusty village in central Pakistan on Friday for the burial of their figurehead, shot dead by suspected Islamic extremists. Minority affairs minister Shahbaz Bhatti, 42, an outspoken campaigner against Pakistan's Islamic blasphemy laws, died in a hail of bullets as he left his mother's home in the capital Islamabad on Wednesday.
Wailing women in his ancestral village of Khushpur beat their chests and demanded: "Hang the killers." Marchers at a rally bore black flags aloft and wore black armbands, chanting "Bhatti's blood will bring revolution". Police said that a letter found at the murder scene, purportedly from supporters of Al-Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban, claimed responsibility and vowed a similar grisly fate for anyone else who opposes the blasphemy laws.
At Islamabad's Fatima Church on Friday, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani and cabinet members attended a funeral mass for the Roman Catholic politician, guarded by blanket security including police marksmen.
Gilani, who has declared three days of national mourning, described his colleague's murder as "a great loss" to the nation of 167 million people, which has a tiny Christian minority of less than three percent. "He was working for inter-faith harmony," Gilani told about 1,000 mourners, including Bhatti's grieving relatives and diplomats. "We will do our utmost to bring the culprits to justice." The Christian politician's brother Peter Bhatti said he had "struggled to help the poor. All our family members will struggle to fulfil his cause".
Bhatti had defied death threats, conceding to AFP in January that he was "the highest target right now" after the assassination of another political moderate who wanted to reform the Islamic blasphemy legislation. Critics say the law, which carries the death penalty, is often misused to settle personal or business scores against vulnerable minorities. But Islamist hardliners in Pakistan have sworn to uphold it.
Bhatti's assassination has sparked international outrage and stoked concern about rampant militancy in nuclear-armed Pakistan, a fractious ally in the US-led war in Afghanistan.
US President Barack Obama said the killers must be brought to justice and said he was saddened by the "horrific" attack. Bhatti's coffin was flown by helicopter to Khushpur for burial later Friday. It was draped in Pakistan's flag -- which is predominately green, representing Islam, with a white stripe for the country's minorities.
Black flags also flew atop the mud and brick houses in the mainly Christian village of about 1,500 families. Around 500 people gathered near Bhatti's home in the small village in Faisalabad district, chanting slogans against the murder, an AFP reporter said.
"People are very sad here, it is a brutal act. People struggling for their rights demand justice," college professor Jacob Paul told AFP. Nazir Ahmed, a 70-year-old Muslim farmer in Khushpur, said "Bhatti was a friend of Muslims also. We equally share the grief of Christians".
After Bhatti, Sherry in jihadi line of fire?

Pakistan MP Sherry Rehman, who had proposed a bill to reform the blasphemy laws, may be next on the extremists' hitlist. Of the three politicians who stood up for Aasia Bibi, a Christian woman sentenced to death last November for allegedly committing blasphemy against Prophet Muhammad, just one is still alive– Rehman. Following the slayings of Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer and minorities affairs Minister Shahbaz Bhatti, worries are growing that Rehman could be next. "Make no mistake: she is in grave danger," one of her friends said.
"We will continue to target all those who speak against the law which punishes those who insult the prophet. Their fate will be the same," Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan's deputy spokesman, Ahsanullah Ahsan, told BBC.