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Fear in Pakistani village dominated by Christians

A church bell, not a mosque loudspeaker, calls people to prayer along the dung-lined streets and inside the crumbling houses of this village. The body of Pakistan's most recent Christian martyr is buried in its graveyard.

Khushpur is almost entirely Catholic, and for decades it has been an oasis for Christians in a nation where 95 percent of people are Muslim and Islamist extremism is spreading. The village has produced so many priests and nuns that some call it the "Rome of Pakistan."

But Islamist militants' recent murder of federal minister Shahbaz Bhatti, a Christian son of the village targeted for opposing Pakistan's harsh blasphemy laws, has rattled the peace. As they prepare to observe Easter, many of the 5,300 villagers say Pakistan's Christians face more pressure than ever.

"You live with fear," said Rose Dominic, 45, a math teacher. "You can't express yourself."

Khushpur traces its roots to 1902 when the area was part of British India, decades before Pakistan was created in 1947 as a homeland for the subcontinent's Muslims. The lead founder was Father Felix, a Capuchin friar from Belgium. Felix means "happy" in Latin, and the friar named Khushpur, which means "happy place," after himself, according to research by the late scholar Linda S. Walbridge.

Today, Khushpur is in most respects a typical Pakistani village: Many residents are poor farm workers, the roads are decrepit, the electricity is out half the day, animals roam freely and clean water is a luxury. There are few local stores or other forms of commerce, and while the schools are considered good, many of the most educated Khushpuris leave to find work in the cities.

But the Christians here say they feel a deep affection for the land and the well-kept, red-brick Catholic church that looms over it.

On Palm Sunday, dozens of worshippers sang and marched to church through a muddy street holding palm leaves. Women and men crowded the church minutes later, sitting on separate sides, and wearing their Sunday best as light filtered through the stained-glass windows.

Khushpur has risen to prominence among Pakistan's Christian villages partly because of its reputation for producing "martyrs."

One of them was Bishop John Joseph, a human rights activist who shot himself in 1998 to protest the same blasphemy laws Bhatti wanted to change. The laws impose the death penalty for insulting Islam, and rights groups say they are frequently used to persecute religious minorities or settle personal disputes.

Joseph's body is buried in the nearby city of Faisalabad, but his bloody clothes were interred in the graveyard in Khushpur under a large marble slab. Just a few meters away is Bhatti's grave, topped with a cross bearing his picture, and still topped with fresh flowers daily.

Bhatti led the ministry for minorities, and what little political power Pakistan's Christians had was almost entirely vested in him. Fliers left at the scene of his March 2 murder in Islamabad were signed by Taliban and al-Qaida militants who said they targeted Bhatti because of the blasphemy issue.

The mention of Bhatti's name still brings tears in Khushpur, where one woman said people loved him more than their own sons.

"People feel and people think their hope died," said Father Anjum Nazir, the parish priest. "If he is killed, what will be security for other people?"

The ruling Pakistan People's Party, of which Bhatti was a member, has said repeatedly that it will protect minorities in the country. However, it has refused to change the blasphemy law in the face of Islamist furor over the matter.

Attention to the law rose last year after a Christian became the first woman to be sentenced to death for allegedly insulting Islam. Bhatti and Punjab Province Gov. Salman Taseer tried to secure a pardon for her and called for reforming the law. Taseer was murdered in January, and Bhatti in March.

According to a Freedom House review of data from non-profits and the U.S. State Department, 695 people were accused of blasphemy in Pakistan between 1986 and April 2006, of which about 12 percent were Christian. The Pakistani daily newspaper Dawn has reported that 964 people were charged with blasphemy from 1984 to 2004, with a similar percentage of Christians.

The blasphemy law hangs like a sword over Pakistani Christians' heads, even in Khushpur where they dominate.

Earlier this month, two Muslim police officers stopped by the catechist training center in the village and asked if Christians worshipped images of Jesus Christ. The Christians declined to respond, worried that saying the wrong thing could get them accused of blasphemy, said Babar Peter, 27, a Bible teacher.

While Pakistan has never carried out a death sentence for blasphemy, people can lose months or years of their lives in prison. Dozens have been killed by extremists during the trial process or after they are released.

While many of those accused under the law are Muslim, Christians are disproportionately targeted. Already, Christians in this nation of 180 million face daily discrimination and often hold low-level jobs, such as street sweeping.

"We explain to our children that the blasphemy law is against Christians and to be careful, but that they should not lie about being a Christian," said Mariam Moghal, a 60-year-old mother of nine.

A few dozen Khushpur households are Muslim, and both Christians and Muslims said the two communities get along well. They attend each other's festivals and weddings and bury their dead in the same graveyard. Christian leaders said they gave money to help the Muslims build their mosque, a polished structure with a soaring minaret.

Haji Mohammad Latif, the mosque imam, said he wept when he heard of Bhatti's assassination.

"He always talked about love, peace and harmony. That's why I loved him," said Latif, 52, a portly man with wavy, jet-black hair whose family has lived in Khushpur for generations.

Khushpur's Christians say they feel safer in the village than elsewhere in the country because they are the majority, as opposed to the many Christians who live in slums in the cities. Some Khushpuris speak of "Pakistan" as if it were another country altogether.

Still, occasionally there have been threats — or at least rumors of threats — against Khushpur. After Bhatti was killed, talk of a potential bombing swept the village. For a couple of days, residents manned 24-hour watch posts, bearing what few weapons they had, said Ijaz Masih, 42, a farmer.

A handful of police show up to guard religious events now and then, and the Bhatti family and his office have security guards provided by the government. Still, Khushpur Christians said they doubt police would intervene if they were attacked.

"We can just hope," said Sehrish Rafiq Sindhu, 19.

As Father Nazir, the parish priest, crafts his message for Easter Sunday, when Christians celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ, he keeps returning to the theme of renewing the spirit.

"Old things are gone, new things are coming," Nazir plans to tell his still-grieving flock in Khushpur. "Make your today better than yesterday."