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Hillary Clinton (Associated Press/Photo by J. Scott Applewhite)

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Religion | The Obama administration condemns the killing of a Pakistani Christian leader, but will it do more for religious freedom?

WASHINGTON-On Tuesday, before the House Foreign Relations Committee, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton admitted that the Obama administration had not spoken out enough on behalf of religious minorities in the Middle East.

"This has not gotten the level of attention and concern that it should," she said, the first time the administration has acknowledged that shortcoming. "I think we need to do much more to stand up for the rights of religious minorities . . . we have to be speaking out more." In the same breath, she condemned countries using defamation laws to "execute and otherwise oppress religious minorities."

On Wednesday, the Taliban assassinated one of the most visible religious minority figures, Shahbaz Bhatti, who fought for religious freedom in Pakistan. (See "'Another dark day,'" March 2, 2011.) Bhatti, the only Christian member of Pakistan's Cabinet, had pushed for reforms to the country's blasphemy laws, which exact heavy punishment on those accused of defaming Islam.

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A letter reportedly from the Taliban left at the scene of the crime condemned Bhatti's attempt to reform the defamation laws as "blasphemy." Two months ago, the bodyguard of Salman Taseer, the governor of the Punjab province, killed Taseer for opposing the defamation laws.

So far, Pakistan has declared three days of national mourning for Bhatti. The government has vowed to bring his killers to justice, but senior police official Muhammad Ishaq Warraich indicated that the Taliban's note at the scene claiming responsibility could be an "attempt to divert our investigations."

Both President Obama and Secretary Clinton released statements condemning Bhatti's murder.

"Minister Bhatti fought for and sacrificed his life for the universal values that Pakistanis, Americans, and people around the world hold dear-the right to speak one's mind, to practice one's religion as one chooses, and to be free from discrimination based on one's background or beliefs," Obama said. "He most courageously challenged the blasphemy laws of Pakistan under which individuals have been prosecuted for speaking their minds or practicing their own faiths."

Obama called for justice for Bhatti's killers and said Pakistanis desiring religious freedom must be able to "live free from fear."

Members of Congress and religious freedom advocates applauded the president, but went further.

Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., said Pakistan should give Bhatti a state funeral. Michael Horowitz, a religious freedom expert at the Hudson Institute, said President Obama should attend the funeral.

"If the only thing that comes out of this is just a bunch of statements, including the very strong one from the president, Pakistan will appease the extremists, and not just on religious issues, but on nuclear issues, on Indian relations issues, on everything," Horowitz said, adding that without concrete action, "We would have not only failed Bhatti, we would have failed to protect the national security of the United States."

Rep. Joe Pitts, R-Pa., called on the Pakistani government to "eliminate the blasphemy laws that target religious minorities."

Rabbi David Saperstein, head of the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism, called the laws "a violation of human rights standards." Saperstein demanded that the Senate confirm Obama's nominee for ambassador for international religious freedom: "It's an embarrassment that we don't have that." The post has been vacant since the president took office. (see "Illegal Vacancy," February 26, 2011.)

A press conference at the U.S. Capitol became unusually emotional when lawmakers played a video of an interview with Bhatti recorded several months ago. "These Taliban threaten me," he said in the clip. "But I want to share that I believe in Jesus Christ who has given His own life for us. I know what is the meaning of cross, and I am following the cross. And I'm ready to die for a cause. I'm living for my community and suffering people, and I will die to defend their rights."

Emily Belz
Emily Belz

Emily, who has covered everything from political infighting to pet salons for The Indianapolis Star, The Hill, and the New York Daily News, reports for WORLD from New York City. Follow Emily on Twitter @emzleb.

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