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Associated Press/Photo by Shakil Adil

'Another dark day'

Pakistan | A leading Christian and advocate for religious freedom in Pakistan is gunned down

On Wednesday four gunmen shot and killed Shahbaz Bhatti, the only Christian member of Pakistan's Cabinet, in a residential area as he drove from his parents' home in Islamabad. As minority affairs minister, the 42-year-old Roman Catholic was one of the leading advocates for Pakistani Christians, who make up less than 3 percent of the population in the increasingly militant Islamic country of 166 million. He was the second federal official to be killed by assassins for his opposition to blasphemy laws and his advocacy for a Christian woman sentenced to death under them.

Both al-Qaeda and a Taliban affiliate claimed responsibility for Bhatti's murder. Police found at the ambush site pamphlets produced by Osama bin Laden's terrorist network and Tehrik-i-Taliban Punjab, a Taliban offshoot located in Pakistan's most populous province. "This man was a known blasphemer of the Prophet [Muhammad]," said Tehrik-i-Taliban spokesman Ahsanullah Ahsan. "We will continue to target all those who speak against the law which punishes those who insult the prophet. Their fate will be the same."

Last November, when a judge in Punjab Province sentenced Asia Bibi to death by hanging for blasphemy, President Asif Ali Zardari asked Bhatti to look into and report on the handling of the case following both international and domestic outcry. Bhatti's report, issued the same month, recommended a pardon for the 45-year-old Christian mother of five.

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According to a government statement issued at the time, the report concluded that the blasphemy case against Bibi "has been registered on grounds of personal enmity." Bhatti also recommended that the government provide security both to Bibi in prison and to her family, who had gone into hiding because of death threats. Bhatti told the president, "The minority community has great respect for all the Holy Prophets and the Holy Books. . . . The people belonging to minorities as a marginalized community know fully well the consequences of blasphemy and could never think of committing the offense." Zardari then asked Bhatti to form a committee to propose reforms to the blasphemy law to "effectively prevent the misuse of [it] for personal and political reasons."

The reform effort was part of an extended campaign for Bhatti, who received in 2009 the first ever religious freedom medal presented by the U.S. Commission on International Freedom. He told commission chairman Leonard Leo, "They are using this law to victimize minorities as well as Muslims of Pakistan. This law is creating disharmony and intolerance in our society."

But those involved with efforts to reform Pakistan's blasphemy laws themselves became the object of death threats. Punjab Gov. Salman Taseer joined Bhatti's call for reform, and seconded his request that Zardari pardon Bibi. Taseer was gunned down by his own bodyguard on Jan. 4. (See "Clash of civilizations," Jan. 29, 2011.) And female Member of Parliament Sherry Rehman, who introduced a private bill to amend the blasphemy law, told reporters last month that she receives death threats every half hour by email and telephone, according to Assist News.

Bhatti, a longtime advocate for Christians who also was head of the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance, a non-governmental human rights group, and a leading member of the ruling Pakistan Peoples Party, was accustomed to death threats. But after his report in the Bibi case, the government began providing him with a regular security detail. But it did not accompany him on Wednesday's afternoon visit to see his mother.

Zardari's government condemned the assassination. "This is a concerted campaign to slaughter every liberal, progressive, and humanist voice in Pakistan," Farahnaz Ispahani, an aide to President Zardari, told the Associated Press. "The time has come for the federal government and provincial governments to speak out and to take a strong stand against these murderers to save the very essence of Pakistan."

Pakistani Christians called it "another dark day in the history of this land." A pastor (not named for security reasons) said, "Bhatti has paid the ultimate price for his boldness to stand for the truth and for the good of common people." News of the assassination, he said, "has sent shock waves of fear through the Christian community in the country."
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