A policeman surveys the site where the governor of Pujab province Salman Taseer was shot dead in Islamabad on January 4, 2011.
ISLAMABAD (Reuters) – A politician gunned down over his opposition to Pakistanâ€™s blasphemy laws was buried on Wednesday after a murder likely to cow further those pushing for a more liberal and secular vision of Pakistani society.
Five hundred Pakistani religious scholars said that anyone who expressed grief over the assassination of Salman Taseer, governor of Punjab province, could suffer the same fate.
Taseer, a liberal politician close to President Asif Ali Zardari, had championed the cause of a Christian woman sentenced to death under the blasphemy laws which critics say are used to target religious minorities, often to settle personal scores.
His killing in broad daylight at a shopping center in Islamabad Tuesday showed how difficult, and how dangerous, it would be to roll back a tide of religious conservatism which is growing in strength in the Muslim country of 170 million.
Taseer was killed by one of his guards, who said he was incensed by the politicianâ€™s opposition to the blasphemy laws, in a parking lot at a block of shops popular with foreigners.
The scholars praised the â€œcourageâ€ and religious zeal of the killer, saying his action had made Muslims around the world proud. Pakistani officials said they were investigating whether the killing was part of a wider conspiracy.
The blasphemy laws have widespread support in a country that is more than 95 percent Muslim, and most politicians are loath to be seen as soft on the defense of Islam. Taseer, however, was an outspoken critic.
Thousands waved ruling Pakistan Peopleâ€™s Party flags at Taseerâ€™s funeral at his official residence in the city of Lahore, which was attended by Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani and other top government officials.
The Jamaat-e-Ahl-e-Sunnat Pakistan group of scholars making the veiled threat is from what is seen as a relatively moderate school of Islam in Pakistan. It is a vocal critic of militants violently opposed to the government and its ally Washington.
However, they have been leading protests in favor of the blasphemy law.
The hardline stand taken by them illustrates how difficult it can be for Washington, which sees Islamabad as indispensable in its war on militancy, to persuade Pakistani leaders to crack down harder on religious extremism.
â€œMore than 500 scholars of the Jamaat-e-Ahl-e-Sunnat have advised Muslims not to offer the funeral prayers of Governor Punjab Salman Taseer nor try to lead the prayers,â€ the group said in a statement.
â€œAlso, there should be no expression of grief or sympathy on the death of the governor, as those who support blasphemy of the Prophet are themselves indulging in blasphemy.â€ Many people writing on social media have praised Taseerâ€™s assassination. When his accused killer, wearing a black hood, was brought to court in a police vehicle, some people screamed Allahu Akbar (God is greatest). Others threw rose petals.
The Jamaat-e-Islami, one of Pakistanâ€™s main Islamist parties, also said Taseerâ€™s assassination was justified.
â€œIf the government had removed him from the governorship, there wouldnâ€™t have been the need for someone to shoot him,â€ it said in a statement shortly before Taseer was buried in Lahore.
Pro-Taliban Cleric Condemns Killing
Taseerâ€™s assassination was one of the most high-profile since former prime minister Benazir Bhutto was killed in 2007.
Though he had no day-to-day role in central government, his killing has deepened a political crisis in Pakistan, a nuclear-armed country and front-line state in the war in Afghanistan.
It came two days after a main partner in Gilaniâ€™s coalition joined the opposition, leaving him without a parliamentary majority and struggling to save his government.
Taseer had defended a Christian mother, Aasia Bibi, sentenced to death in November in a case stemming from a village dispute. Saying she had been falsely accused, he had promised to seek a presidential pardon.
While Pakistanâ€™s religious parties do not win significant votes in elections, they have the capability to stir emotions and street protests.
Interior Minister Rehman Malik said the bodyguard who killed Taseer, identified as Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri, confessed and had been arrested. He is a member of an elite police force.
After leaving the court, Qadri shouted: â€œIn the service of the Prophet, death is acceptable.â€ Taseer was shot 14 times from a distance of about six feet, said a spokesman for the hospital where he was treated.
However, in a sign of how confusing Pakistanâ€™s politics can be, pro-Taliban cleric Tahir Mehmood Ashrafi condemned the killing of Taseer, saying the law was man-made and not divine.
â€œIt is the product of extremism and fanaticism which is damaging for an Islamic society,â€ said Ashrafi. He said the clericsâ€™ association which he heads has 5,000 members.
(Additional reporting by Augustine Anthony, Faisal Aziz, Sahar Ahmed, Kamran Haider and Zeeshan Haider; Editing by Myra MacDonald)