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Ready to die for a cause

Shahbaz Bhatti assassination removes lead voice for Pakistani Christians

Issue: "Libyan exodus," March 26, 2011

Last month Shahbaz Bhatti attended the National Prayer Break­fast in Washington, D.C., met Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other dignitaries, then continued on to Ottawa, to London, and to Brussels. "He was trying to raise the public consciousness about rising extremism in Pakistan," said longtime friend Victor Gill, a Pakistani-American who lives in Philadelphia and has worked with Bhatti for years.

What Bhatti, 42, did not accomplish in life many hope he may help to accomplish in death, as photos of his bullet-ridden, blood-soaked black sedan headlined newspapers around the world after his March 2 assassination.

As Pakistan's minister of minorities, the Catholic Bhatti was the only Christian member of Pakistan's cabinet and a leading member of the ruling Pakistan People's Party. He was killed by at least four gunmen who surrounded his vehicle in the afternoon as he drove away from his mother's home in a residential area of Islamabad. A leading advocate for reform of Pakistan's blasphemy laws and for the country's Christian and Hindu minorities, he was under increasing threats and typically had a security detail. Investigators suspect a member of the detail may have tipped off the gunmen to his whereabouts and allowed security to lapse.

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Bhatti's death followed closely the January assassination of Punjab Gov. Salman Taseer, who was gunned down in daylight by his own bodyguard after he joined Bhatti's call for reform and seconded his request that the government pardon Asia Bibi, a woman sentenced to death under Pakistan's blasphemy laws last year (see "Clash of civilizations," Jan. 29).

It was a harsh blow to Pakistan's Christian community, which makes up less than 3 percent of the population in the increasingly militant Islamic country of 166 million. For them Bhatti was seen as their spokesman. "Pakistani Christians are already mute," said Gill. "Now it means a total mental and psychological death for them. There is no free expression, and no one knows when someone will be attacked or eliminated." A pastor in Pakistan, not identified for security reasons, called Bhatti's death "another dark day" for Pakistan and said, "Bhatti has paid the ultimate price for his boldness to stand for the truth and for the good of common people."

Al-Qaeda and a Taliban affiliate claimed responsibility for Bhatti's murder. Police found alongside Bhatti's body at least one note produced by Osama bin Laden's terrorist network and Tehrik-i-Taliban Punjab, a Taliban offshoot located in Pakistan's most populous province. According to a translation first published by CBN on March 4, the note called the attack a "fitting lesson for the world of infidelity, the crusaders, the Jews and their aides," and continued, "This is the fitting end of the accursed one which would serve as an example to others. And now with the blessing and aid of Allah, the mujahideen will send all of you, one by one to Hell."

Under President Asif Ali Zardari, Pakistan's coalition government appears too fragile or unwilling to powerfully move against Islamic militants, even with the deaths of top officials. Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani was the only senior Pakistani official to attend Bhatti's March 4 funeral-though thousands of others were there, including U.S. Ambassador Cameron P. Munter, who sat in a pew near the slain official's coffin.

Bhatti was aware of the threats against him, and he made a video with a journalist several months ago where he spoke about them.

"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."
-with reporting by Emily Belz in Washington

Mindy Belz
Mindy Belz

Mindy travels to the far corners of the globe as the editor of WORLD and lives with her family in the mountains of western North Carolina. Follow Mindy on Twitter @mcbelz.

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