Pakistani PM praises slain leader

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People carry the coffin of Shahbaz Bhatti from a local church after a funeral ceremony in Islamabad, Pakistan (AP)

Pakistan’s prime minister told mourners at a funeral Mass for a Christian politician assassinated for opposing tough blasphemy laws that they had a lost a great leader.

Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani also said the government would do its “utmost” to bring Shahbaz Bhatti’s killers to justice.

Mr Bhatti, the sole Christian government minister, was shot dead on Wednesday after being threatened for opposing laws that impose the death penalty for insulting Islam. He was the second Pakistani politician killed in two months over the matter.

At Mr Bhatti’s home village of Khushpur, anguished friends and relatives of the 42-year-old Roman Catholic prepared to bury him while mourners packed a church in the capital, Islamabad, to pay their respects. There, Mr Gilani praised a man many described as gentle, humble and devoted to helping Pakistan’s downtrodden religious minorities.

“People like him, they are very rare,” Mr Gilani told the overflow crowd. “All the minorities have lost a great leader. I assure you, we will try our utmost to bring the culprits to justice.”

The prime minister did not specifically mention Islamist extremists who have waged a war on the country, though he has issued written statements denouncing them in recent days. Mr Gilani also avoided mentioning the blasphemy laws, which rights groups have long deplored as open to abuse.

Mr Bhatti and Punjab province Governor Salman Taseer both criticised the laws after a Christian woman was sentenced to death for allegedly committing blasphemy last year. On January 4, Gov Taseer was shot dead by one of his bodyguards, who said he was angry about his stance on the laws.

President Asif Ali Zardari did not attend the funeral Mass, though he rarely makes public appearances of any sort out of fear for his life. Also notably missing were top leaders of the main opposition party, the Pakistan Muslim League-N, which is considered to be sympathetic to Islamist causes.

Christians make up around 5% of the country’s 180 million people, and along with other non-Muslim minorities have often been persecuted. They typically live in poor parts of town, separated from Muslims, and do low-skilled, badly paid jobs.

Also on Friday, a bomb went off in a mosque in north-west Pakistan, killing six people and wounding 25 around prayer time. Police official Saif Ali Khan said the blast in Akbarpura village occurred as worshippers gathered at a shrine attached to the mosque to collect free food.

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