At Christian lawmaker's funeral, Pakistan's PM mum on blasphemy law

Pakistan's prime minister joined mourners at today's funeral service for slain Christian minister Shahbaz Bhatti. Critics say a timid government has emboldened militants and allowed extremists to shape the country’s future.

By , Correspondent

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    People carry the coffin of slain Christian leader Shahbaz Bhatti from a local church after a funeral ceremony in Islamabad, Pakistan on March 4. 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.
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About 1,000 mourners, including the top diplomats and the US ambassador, today attended a Roman Catholic funeral for Shahbaz Bhatti. The former head of the Ministry of Minorities was Pakistan’s sole Christian minister and the second Pakistani official slain in as many months for opposing the country’s blasphemy laws.

Speaking at Our Lady of Fatima Church, Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani said his government would do its “utmost” to catch the killers. Tellingly, however, he stopped short of mentioning – much less supporting – the cause for which Mr. Bhatti lost his life Wednesday.

Critics believe the government’s strategy of distancing itself from liberal politicians who have campaigned for amendments in the blasphemy laws, which includes the death penalty for disrespect of Islam, has emboldened militants and will allow extremists to shape the country’s future. On Thursday, Pakistan’s representative to the UN called on other countries not to link the killing with blasphemy laws.

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“The most depressing thing has been that the government has no capacity or interest in doing anything in changing mindsets,” says Cyril Almeida, a columnist of Catholic background who attended today's Mass. "When it comes to using the levers of the state to roll back the tide of extremism, there is little that is tangible."

Pakistan’s fragile coalition government has failed to prioritize or convey the dangers of extremism because of associated political risks, says Mr. Almeida, while voters are more concerned by bread-and-butter issues such as spiraling inflation and a chronic energy crisis. “After this death the militants must feel they have a winning strategy,” he adds.

Snipers guard funeral

Roads were blocked and rooftop snipers assigned to surrounding buildings as several hundred mourners grieved outside the packed church. Riot police and Western-embassy security staff in business suits, known locally as “Raymond Davises” (after a high-profile CIA agent in Pakistani custody) watched on, contributing to a tense atmosphere.

Addressing the mourners indoors, Prime Minister Gilani said of Bhatti: “People like him, they are very rare. All the minorities have lost a great leader. I assure you, we will try our utmost to bring the culprits to justice.”

His words, however, had little impact on the grieving Christians, many of whom felt the government was derelict in its duty to protect Bhatti.

“What hope have we left? Who can take [Bhatti’s] place?” wailed Saira Masih, who had come with family members to mourn. Others pointed out the irony in the prime minister and other officials arrived in armor-plated cars – a security measure denied to the slain minister despite repeated requests.

Later, Bhatti’s coffin was draped in Pakistan’s national flag and was flown by helicopter to his hometown of Khushpur for burial.

Bhatti is the third high profile politician from the ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) to be killed in recent years, following the assassinations of liberal governor Salman Taseer in January, who had also campaigned to amend the blasphemy law, and iconic leader Benazir Bhutto in December 2007.

Mr. Almeida, the columnist, points out that after Taseer’s death the government publicly distanced itself from the blasphemy-law debate, leaving other politicians who had campaigned for amendments such as Bhatti and Sherry Rehman, a female MP, to fend for themselves.

When the PPP, considered Pakistan’s most progressive party, fails to act, “that compounds the sense of gloom," he says, "because where are the alternatives?”

Liberalism associated with American imperialism

That sense of gloom contrasts with the optimism prevalent after democratic elections were held in Pakistan in 2008, following eight years of rule by General Pervez Musharraf.

While it was hoped at the time that democracy could act as a ‘release valve’ that could alleviate extremism, a number of factors both internal and external have led to Pakistan’s democratic setup becoming “compromised,” according to Mosharraf Zaidi, a political analyst.

Pakistani cooperation with the US-led war in Afghanistan is deeply unpopular at home, allowing religious parties to stoke anti-Americanism and extremist ideologies. Subsequently, he argues, fighting against the root causes of extremism is interpreted as following a US-led agenda.

Still, he adds, “it’s absolutely essential Pakistan do these things."

Sherry Rehman, a liberal lawmaker from the PPP who has tabled amendments to the blasphemy law, agrees.

“Pakistanis are very fiercely protective of their sovereignty. So any kind of encroachments, suggestions, even coupling of agendas is seen as sinister,” she says, adding, “Universal goals are conflated with US goals simply because it casts such a long shadow on the world. Particularly in Pakistan, and the [Predator] drone program doesn’t help that.”

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