By Asim Tanveer
KHUSHPUR, Pakistan (Reuters) - Shouting "death for killers," thousands of Pakistanis on Friday buried the country's only Christian government minister who was killed for challenging a law that stipulates death for insulting Islam.
On Wednesday, the Taliban killed Minister for Minorities Shahbaz Bhatti for blasphemy, the latest sign violent religious conservatism is becoming more mainstream in Pakistan, a trend which could further destabilize the nuclear-armed U.S. ally.
Bhatti was the second senior official to be assassinated this year for opposing the blasphemy law. Provincial governor Salman Taseer was shot dead in January by one of his bodyguards.
"The message of Shahbaz Bhatti is to purge Pakistan of killers and hatred," Reverend Father Emmanuel Pervez told thousands of men and women gathered in Bhatti's village in central Pakistan for mass prayers.
"We will not accept oppression ... Bhatti's message is that we should not let Pakistan be defamed."
In a sign of mourning, black flags fluttered atop houses in Khushpur, Bhatti's mainly Christian home village, 290 km (180 miles) south of Islamabad. Around 5,000 men, women and children thronged the village cemetery for the burial.
"These terrorists must be hanged publicly to stop them from committing such brutal crimes," Hina Gill, a member of the Christian Minority Alliance said. "These terrorists are wearing the mask of religion to defame religion."
"Bhatti, your blood will bring revolution," some mourners shouted, raising their hands in the air as his body was taken to the burial site in an ambulance.
Not only Christians mourned Bhatti.
"Shahbaz Bhatti has tried hard to promote interfaith harmony but those who want to destabilize Pakistan have killed him," said Badruddin Chaudhry, a Muslim attending the funeral.
Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani attended a church service for Bhatti in the capital Islamabad on Friday.
"All the minorities have lost a great leader," Gilani said in the church. "I assure you, we will try our utmost to bring the culprits to justice."
Interior Minister Rehman Malik also denounced the killing but said Bhatti himself was to blame for his death.
"I think it was his mistake," Rehman Malik said, adding that Bhatti wanted to keep a low profile. "It was his own decision."
President Asif Ali Zardari did not attend the service.
NO SECURITY ESCORT
Bhatti was traveling in his official car without a security escort when gunmen opened fire on him near his house in Islamabad, killing him on the spot.
After shooting Bhatti, his attackers dropped leaflets saying they had acted in the name of the Punjabi Taliban and al Qaeda because of Bhatti's opposition to the blasphemy law.
Pakistan's blasphemy law sanctions the death penalty for insulting Islam or its Prophet Mohammad.
Bhatti, a 42-year-old Catholic, had called for a reform of the law which rights groups say has been used to persecute Christians and other minorities, which make up around 2 percent of Pakistan's 180 million population.
Some liberal members of the ruling Pakistan People's Party, led by Zardari, also backed efforts to reform the blasphemy law but the government has distanced itself from anyone calling for amendments for fear of a backlash from extremists, a move that has dismayed moderates and liberals.
The death sentence has never been carried out and most convictions are thrown out on appeal, but mobs have killed many accused of blasphemy.
(Additional reporting by Mian Khursheed; Writing by Zeeshan Haider; Editing by Chris Allbritton and Daniel Magnowski)