Pakistan Buries Christian Politician Who Fought for Tolerance

Christians fear no one willing now to defend them or oppose blasphemy laws.

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan March 4, 2011 -- A Christian government minister who died because he fought for tolerance was buried today, his coffin lowered into the ground in his small village as shocked Pakistanis wonder if there's anyone left who will speak for the country's most oppressed.

"Today is a very sad day," said Pakistani Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani during the funeral for Shahbaz Bhatti, the minorities affairs minister who was assassinated on Wednesday. "The founding father of Pakistan had one wish: He taught the people of Pakistan to give the rights and protection to the minorities... People like him are very rare. All the minorities have lost a great leader."

After the funeral, which was held in Islamabad, Bhatti's body was flown to his hometown Khushpur, where his family and local religious leaders buried Pakistan's most senior Christian politician.

As Gilani spoke to mourners and Western diplomats inside Islamabad's best known church, dozens of Christians wailed and chanted psalms on the road outside, flanked by hundreds of police and Western security officials in suits. It was the largest security showing for an event in Islamabad in the last year.

Bhatti spoke for Christians -- who make up 5 percent of Pakistan's population -- and for all of Pakistan's minorities, and he was killed because he wanted to change the country's blasphemy laws, which demands death for anyone who insults Islam and are often used to persecute those minorities.

For the Christian mourners outside the church, Bhatti's death silenced their most powerful defender and makes them feel vulnerable. Christians often live on the edges of Pakistani society, taking some of its most menial jobs and living in the equivalent of ghettos. Christians have also been attacked, most recently in the town of Gojra in 2009 when nine Christians were burned to death.

"They are taking us as animals. They are taking us on the roads... they are killing our ministers. They are killing us in Gojra, they are killing us in Lahore, they are killing us everywhere," said an emotional Rahmoon Bhatti, who is a pastor in Islamabad and not related to Shahbaz Bhatti. "We are not secure against this law. We want this law to be done, we want this law to be taken out from our courts."

Government Shies Away From Discussing Blasphemy Laws

But the two most prominent members of the government who wanted the blasphemy laws changed have both been killed. A third, parliamentarian Sherry Rehman, is largely in hiding. The religious right threatens anyone who even suggests debating the laws.

The government has shied away from discussing the blasphemy law. Gilani did not mention the laws today, and he has made it clear that the ruling Pakistan People's Party has no intention of amending the laws. The fear extends deep into the national assembly, which chose not to formally condemn the murder, instead marking the death with a moment of silence.

That silence has the chance of spreading through the country. If a cabinet member can be killed in a middle-class area of Islamabad, people say, who could possibly feel safe?

Bhatti was not the country's most prominent or powerful politician, but the writer Mohammad Hanif today called him the "bravest man in Islamabad."

"Now no one is going to be arguing" to amend the blasphemy laws, said Rahmoon Bhatti, the pastor from Islamabad. "If we are going to be raise our voice, we will be like same what happened to Shahbaz Bhatti, and we will be next."

Next to him, a group of a dozen Christian mourners chanted Psalm 24, which promises salvation to the pious.

"Who shall ascend into the hill of the Lord, or who shall stand in his holy place?" the psalm asks. "He that hath clean hands, and a pure heart; who hath not lifted up his soul unto vanity, nor sworn deceitfully."