By Asim Tanveer
KHUSHPUR, Pakistan (Reuters) - Angry Pakistani youths shouted "death for killers" Friday ahead of the burial of the country's only Christian government minister who was assassinated for challenging a law that stipulates death for insulting Islam.
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.
Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani was at a church service for Bhatti in the capital Islamabad Friday, in contrast to Taseer's funeral which he did not attend, but the government appeared to distance itself from Bhatti.
Interior Minister Rehman Malik told media Bhatti 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.
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, as hundreds of men, women and children thronged to the village cemetery for 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."
Banners strung in Khushpur expressed outrage. "Shahbaz Bhatti your blood will bring revolution," one read.
Bhatti's body will be flown to Khushpur for burial later on Friday. 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.
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. He died on the spot after sustaining at least eight bullet wounds.
Bhatti's brother-in-law Yousuf Nishan told the Express Tribune newspaper that after Taseer's killing, Bhatti no longer trusted his security detail.
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.
"In Islamic sharia, the sentence for blasphemers to the prophet is just death," the pamphlet said.
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.
United Nations human rights chief Navi Pillay said this week the response by many in Pakistan to Taseer's death, when his killer was hailed as a hero, showed Pakistan was "poisoned by extremism."
Thursday a Pakistani delegate at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva said other countries should not link Bhatti's murder to the blasphemy issue.
"We believe it would not be helpful to link the highly regrettable killing squarely in the context of defamation (of religion) and blasphemy," Asim Ahmad said.
Under the law, anyone who speaks ill of Islam and the Prophet Mohammad commits a crime and faces the death penalty, but activists say the vague terminology has led to its misuse.
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)