ISLAMABAD: The usually sleepy street outside the Our Lady of Fatima Church in Islamabad was bristling with security on Friday morning. Riot police stood at the ready, gun-toting army soldiers were positioned every few yards, plain-clothes security watched every movement. As dignitaries poured inside the small church, security escorts and bullet-proof vehicles soon choked the road outside.
The tragic irony: blanket security was in place for the funeral mass of Shahbaz Bhatti, the federal minister for religious minorities who died defenceless and unprotected just a few kilometres away from the church on Wednesday.
Inside the small church, the congregation of three or four hundred politicians, government officials, diplomats and friends, family members and well-wishers of Shahbaz Bhatti somberly observed the funeral liturgy led by the Catholic bishops of Islamabad-Rawalpindi and Multan.
Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, with Chaudhry Shujaat by his side, was seated next to the funeral bier holding the flag-draped coffin of Bhatti. A couple of pews behind, near the foot of the coffin, was the American Ambassador, Cameron Munter.
It was hard not to notice, though: the diplomatic corps present far outnumbered Pakistani politicians.
Prime Minister Gilani, invited to say a few words before the service began, spoke extempore from the pulpit. The prime minister told the congregation the white stripe on the national flag was a reminder minorities had to be protected, as proclaimed by Mohammad Ali Jinnah. It was a ‘black day’ in Pakistan, the prime minister said.
But it was an odd speech, disjointed and lacking focus. Touching upon Bhatti’s accomplishments — and also his own (“I am the first prime minister to celebrate Christmas in a church.”) — the prime minister’s desultory remarks would not have been out of place at the funeral of a friend who died a natural death.
There was no mention of the blasphemy laws, no mention of the circumstances of Mr Bhatti’s death or the cause he had died for. The only remark that indicated this was a funeral service for an assassinated politician came at the very end of the prime minister’s speech. The government would, the prime minister said, “do the utmost to bring the culprits to justice”.
It was left to two other speakers to broach the topic.
“In his Aug 11 (1947) speech, Mr Jinnah had told the nation: religion has nothing to do with the state,” said Bishop Andrew Francis, adding, “Mr Bhatti has died for his cause. He is a martyr.”
An emotional Peter Bhatti, elder brother of Mr Bhatti, told the congregation, “I am not in sorrow today. I am proud my brother gave his life for a good cause.”
Spontaneously — and unusually for a church service — the mourners in the back pews erupted in applause.
When Peter Bhatti continued, “Shahbaz Bhatti is not the last person to raise this issue,” his words were met with a second burst of applause.
The simmering anger among the mourners finally spilled over on the steps outside the church as Mr Bhatti’s coffin was carried towards a waiting ambulance.
Modified versions of slogans familiar to any PPP supporter rang out as hundreds of people who were unable to enter the church crowded around the coffin.
“Kitnay Bhattis maro gey? Har ghar seh Bhatti niklay ga,” the crowd chanted. “Zalimon, jawab do. Khoon ka hisab do.”
Women wept, men had tears in their eyes; security personnel began to melt away, the VVIPs having already left.
Inside the church, Bishop Francis was telling a small group of reporters that Mr Bhatti had died fighting for a more tolerant Pakistan.
How tolerant was Pakistan today, a foreign reporter asked.
“Zero,” replied the bishop.