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Updated: March 3, 2011 18:28 IST

Pakistani Christians protest politician's killing

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Shahbaz Bhatti. File photo: AP.
Shahbaz Bhatti. File photo: AP.

As the government declared three days of official mourning, Christians hit the streets.

Hundreds of Pakistani Christians demonstrated on Thursday against the slaying of a Catholic government minister who had long been their most prominent advocate in the Muslim—majority country, burning tyres, demanding justice and even shouting for “a revolution.”

The protests showed how marginalized religious minorities feel in a country where Islamist fundamentalist thought has become more mainstream. Hard—line clerics suggested a U.S.—led conspiracy was behind Wednesday’s assassination of Shahbaz Bhatti, and politicians cautiously condemned it - a sign of how weak the government has become in an already unstable, nuclear—armed nation.

Bhatti, 42, was gunned down in the capital, Islamabad, after receiving death threats because he had urged Pakistan to reform harsh laws that impose the death penalty for insulting Islam. He was the second Pakistani politician killed in two months over the blasphemy issue. On January 4, Punjab Governor Salman Taseer was shot dead by one of his own bodyguards who disagreed with his view that the laws need to be changed.

As the government declared three days of official mourning, Christians hit the streets.

In Rawalpindi, a city near the capital, thick clouds of smoke rose from burning tyres, while some 300 protesters chanted that Bhatti’s assassins must be brought to justice. One woman shouted that Bhatti’s killers were “defaming the image of Islam and trying to demolish my country of Pakistan.”

In the central city of Multan, about 150 Muslims and Christians staged a peaceful protest, saying Bhatti’s sacrifice would not be in vain.

Christians are the largest religious minority in Pakistan, where 95 percent of some 180 million people are Muslim. They have little political power. As Taliban violence and extremist ideas have spread, Christians and other religious minorities have increasingly wondered if they have a future here.

“We also do our best to serve society like other citizens, but we also deserve to be treated equally like others,” said Bhatti’s brother—in—law Yousuf Nishan as he received mourners and helped prepare for the slain politician’s funeral on Friday.

After Taseer’s death, there was outright glee among some of Pakistan’s increasingly powerful rightwing Islamists. Even many ordinary Pakistanis praised the assassin, saying the outspoken Muslim governor - a flamboyant, wealthy and liberal man - was a traitor to his faith who deserved to be killed.

But in the wake of Bhatti’s murder, clerics preferred to talk of conspiracies involving “foreign hands,” though some offered lukewarm condemnations of the murder of a man described as humble, low—profile and devoted to representing the downtrodden.

The statements came even though pamphlets signed by al—Qaeda and the Taliban were found at the scene claiming responsibility for the murder.

“I am afraid that this could be an American conspiracy to defame the government of Pakistan, Muslims and Islam,” said Rafi Usmani, who bears the title of grand mufti of Pakistan.

Some Islamist leaders and elements in Pakistan’s media suggested that the assassination was a way for the U.S. to deflect attention from the case of Raymond Allen Davis, a CIA security contractor who is accused of killing two Pakistanis but whom Washington insists has diplomatic immunity.

Senior Pakistani officials issued condemnations of the attack on Bhatti, denouncing extremism but not mentioning the blasphemy issue. The governing Pakistan People’s Party has said it was not going to touch the statutes, which human rights groups have long deplored.

Analysts say the politicians have to be careful on the subject to avoid getting killed and because the government is too weak to stir Islamist backlash.

The U.S., which strongly condemned Bhatti’s assassination, has pressed Pakistan to work against extremism. In particular, it wants Islamabad to eliminate hide—outs used by Islamist insurgents, saying they threaten American and NATO troops in Afghanistan as well as the stability of Pakistan itself.

On Thursday, a highway ambush and a car bomb attack targeting security forces in Pakistan’s militant—riddled northwest killed 13 people, including four civilians, a sign of the insurgents’ resilience despite Pakistani army operations against them.

Pakistan also finds itself challenged on other fronts that threaten to bring down the weak civilian government, notably a struggling economy.

Public transportation workers in the southern port city of Karachi went on strike over the government’s decision to raise fuel prices on Thursday. The strike crippled much of the city, which is Pakistan’s most populous with 18 million people as well as its main economic hub.

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