Thousands attend funeral of murdered Pakistani minister

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The Independent Online

Blood was met with demands for more blood today as angry Christian demonstrators demanded that the killers of slain Pakistani minister Shahbaz Bhatti be captured and hanged.

As prime minister Yusouf Raza Gilani led crowds of mourners who packed a memorial service at a church in Islamabad, youths in Mr Bhatti's village where he was later buried gathered to wave banners and shouted slogans.

"These terrorists must be hanged publicly to stop them from committing such brutal crimes," Hina Gill, a member of the Christian Minority Alliance told reporters. "These terrorists are wearing the mask of religion to defame religion."

A day after he was assassinated close to the home he shared with his mother in Islamabad, Mr Bhatti's friends, colleagues and supporters crowded into a memorial mass in a Catholic church in the city. Many had to stand outside, reportedly because of security concerns for Mr Gilani and the many foreign ambassadors who attended.

Snipers were posted on surrounding roof-tops and roads were shut down. President Asif Ali Zardari did not attend the service because of security concerns.

"People like him, they are very rare," Mr Gilani said of the minister for minorities and the only Christian member of the cabinet. "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."

Several hours afterwards, a helicopter flew Mr Bhatti's body to Khushpur, a Christian village of around 10,000 people in the east of Punjab province for burial. His coffin was met by around 1,500 people and was draped in the flags of both Pakistan and the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance. Many Muslims were also among the mourners.

Pakistan’s minorities have been left reeling from the assassination of Mr Bhatti, the second such killing in the space of two months of high profile politicians who had spoken out against controversial blasphemy laws. In January, the governor of Punjab, Salmaan Taseer was shot dead by a member of his own security detail, also in Islamabad.

It remains unclear why Mr Bhatti was travelling without his security detail when he was shot. Some reports have suggested he did not trust his bodyguards since Mr Taseer's murder.

The country's interior minister, Rehman Malik, told the country's parliament today that he had been provided with a detail of two cars and 16 guards. He insisted it had been up to the minister not to travel with his protection. "It was his own decision," added Mr Malik, who has come under intense pressure following the two killings.

The most recent controversy over the blasphemy laws arose when a court sentenced to death a Christian woman, Aasia Noreen, after she was found guilty of insulting the Prophet Mohammad.

Campaigners demanded that she be pardoned and said the laws were often misused to settle personal scores. Pakistan's minorities make up less than five per cent of the population and are vulnerable to the laws' misuse, but Muslims are also suffer.

The ruling Pakistan's People's Party had initially said it was in favour of reforming the laws and a female MP, Sherry Rehman, drafted a bill to do just that. But following the killing of Mr Taseer and all too cognisant of the disturbing groundswell of support among some sections of society for the governor's killer, the government quickly capitulated. Ms Rehman is in hiding for her life.