Pakistan's Christians Fearful After Assassination

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Muhammed Muheisen / AP

A Pakistani mourner reacts during the funeral procession for Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer in Lahore, Pakistan, on Jan. 5, 2011

Two of the dead man's sons sobbed uncontrollably as preparations for Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer's funeral took place in Lahore on Wednesday. But to the south, in Pakistan's huge port city of Karachi, religious scholars united to forbid mourning. They urged pious Muslims not to offer funeral prayers for the outspoken Taseer, who had most recently made headlines by championing the rights of Aasia Bibi, a Christian convert facing execution because of the country's blasphemy laws. Indeed, on Dec. 31, four days before his death, Taseer held his ground, offering these prophetic words on Twitter: "I was under huge pressure sure 2 cow down b4 rightist pressure on blasphemy. Refused. Even if I'm the last man standing."

Taseer's opposition to the blasphemy laws was hugely unpopular among a large segment of Pakistanis — and they are consciously refusing to grieve for his death. In a statement issued by Jamaat Ahle Sunnat, a prominent religious organization that represents the Barelvi movement of Sunni Muslims, more than 500 religious scholars urged Pakistanis not to express regret over Taseer's murder. Ibatsam Ellahi, a member of Jamaat Ahle Hadith Pakistan, another conservative religious group, asked the faithful to refrain from attending the funeral of one of the most charismatic and visible representatives of the ruling Pakistan People's Party. "He sided with a woman who had committed blasphemy, so he himself can also be considered to be blasphemous and hence a non-Muslim," Ellahi said. "And I don't think I need to attend the funeral of such a man." A few Islamic scholars even went as far as to praise Malik Mumtaz Qadri, Taseer's bodyguard and alleged killer, who reportedly belonged to a nonviolent faction of the Barelvi sect. On Tuesday, Qadri was supposedly so enraged at the governor's stance that he shot him in the back more than 25 times as Taseer toured a market in Islamabad, Pakistan's capital.

In the Yuhanabad district of Lahore, the dominant mood was also negative — but for a different reason. Yuhanabad is one of the Punjabi capital's largest Christian communities, where Christian families find security in numbers even as they live amid poorly constructed roads and open sewage drains. Yusuf Masih, 34, a Christian laborer who has resided in Yuhanabad for the past 10 years, says Taseer was a hero. "He stood up for those who don't even have a voice," Masih tells TIME. "I salute him." A Christian woman named Naila Ishtiaq says she has been praying for Taseer since his murder because he was trying to help a Christian sister. "He went all the way to see her in jail," she says. "No one else did that."

Meanwhile, a letter posted on the website Pakistan Christian Post embodied the religious minority's concern over the public support for Qadri: "It is alarming that many people in Pakistan have sympathy with the killer. A two-week period of mourning has been declared. Pakistan should use that time to decide whether they are ready to fight the Mullahs responsible for the murder, or just sit back and wait for the next period of mourning."

Meanwhile, Aasia Bibi has appealed her death sentence in high court (an execution was originally scheduled for last November), but no date has so far been set for her appeal hearing. She sits in a jail in Sheikhpura, a town about 25 miles (40 km) from the graveyard where the governor was laid to rest. Fearing retribution, her family has gone into hiding, and Christian-rights activists worry for her future now that she has lost her most powerful protector. "He was the only one who dared to raise his voice for what he believed in," says Joseph Frances, chief of the Pakistan National Christian Party, who took a delegation of 200 Christians to Taseer's funeral. "And now the situation is looking very bleak for Christians and other minorities. We are forced to think that if a man who was simply defending us could be murdered so brutally, what will happen to us?"

But it is not just Christians and other minorities who feel threatened. Even seasoned politicians have started measuring their words. In what seemed to be an attempt to allay members of the religious right upset at the state funeral given to Taseer, Interior Minister Rahman Malik declared during a press conference, "If someone dishonors Islam in front of me, I will shoot him dead." Said a rueful Shabaz Bhatti, federal minister for minorities: "[Taseer's] death is detrimental for the state of human rights, and the state of Christians in Pakistan. All of us should now worry about the future."