Islamic Gunmen Kill Christian Government Minister in Pakistan; Opposed Blasphemy Laws

March 2, 2011 - 6:31 AM

Pakistan Christian

Gunmen shot and killed the Christian Pakistani government minister for religious minorities on Wednesday, March 2, 2011. It is the latest attack on a high-profile figure who advocated reform of harsh blasphemy laws that impose the death penalty for insulting Islam. (AP Photo/Anjum Naveed)

Islamabad (AP) - Assailants purportedly sent by al-Qaida and the Taliban killed the only Christian member of Pakistan's federal Cabinet Wednesday, spraying his car with bullets outside his parents' driveway. It was the second assassination in two months of a high-profile opponent of blasphemy laws that impose the death penalty for insulting Islam.

The killing of Shahbaz Bhatti, a Catholic in his 40s, further undermines Pakistan's shaky image as a moderate Islamic state and could deepen the political turmoil in this nuclear-armed, U.S.-allied state where militants frequently stage suicide attacks.

In pamphlets found at the scene of the shooting, al-Qaida and the Pakistani Taliban said they targeted Bhatti because of his faith and because he allegedly belonged to a committee that was reviewing the blasphemy laws.

Bhatti was ambushed early afternoon Wednesday outside his parents' home in the capital of Islamabad. The politician had just pulled out of the driveway when three men standing nearby opened fire, said Gulam Rahim, a witness.

Two of the men opened the door and tried to pull Bhatti out, Rahim said, while a third man fired his Kalashnikov rifle repeatedly into the dark-colored Toyota. The three gunmen then sped away in a white Suzuki Mehran car, said Rahim who took shelter behind a tree.

Pakistani TV channels showed the car afterward, its windows shattered by bullets. Officials said Bhatti was dead on arrival at an area hospital. Bhatti's driver was unharmed, they said, though there were conflicting reports about whether a young woman was also in the car.

Government officials condemned the killing in strong terms, including denouncing militancy, but made no direct reference to the blasphemy law controversy that apparently motivated the assassins.

"This is concerted campaign to slaughter every liberal, progressive and humanist voice in Pakistan," said Farahnaz Ispahani, an aide to President Asif Ali Zardari. "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."

In January, Punjab province Gov. Salman Taseer was killed by a bodyguard who said he was angry that the politician opposed the blasphemy laws. To the horror of Pakistan's besieged liberals, many ordinary citizens praised the assassin -- a sign of the spread of hardline Islamist thought in the country.

After the killing of the Punjab governor, Bhatti also received death threats, said a friend, Robinson Asghar.

The leaflets at the scene of the shooting were signed by al-Qaida and the Pakistani Taliban Movement in Punjab province. They blamed the governmet for putting Bhatti, an "infidel Christian," in charge of an unspecified committee and said that "this is the horrible fate of this cursed one."

"With the blessing of Allah, the mujahedeen will send each of you to hell," said the note, which did not name any other targets. The committee it was apparently referring to was one said to be reviewing the blasphemy laws, though the government has repeatedly said no such committee existed.

Pakistani Christians reeled from the loss of their most prominent advocate. Christians are the largest religious minority in the country, where roughly 5 percent of 180 million people are not Muslim. They have very little political power and tend to work in lower-level jobs, such as street sweeping.

"We have been orphaned today!" wailed Rehman Masih, a Christian resident of Islamabad. "Now who will fight for our rights? Who will raise a voice for us? Who will help us?"

It was not immediately clear why Bhatti, a member of the ruling Pakistani People's Party, did not have bodyguards with him.

Bhatti had been given police and paramilitary guards, said Wajid Durrani, a senior police official. He said Bhatti had visited his mother shortly before the attack, and that Bhatti had asked his official guards not to travel with him.

The blasphemy laws are a deeply sensitive subject in Pakistan, where most residents are Sunni Muslims and where austere versions of Islam -- more common in the Middle East than South Asia -- have been on the rise.

Human rights groups have long warned that the laws are vaguely worded and open to abuse because people often use them to settle rivalries or persecute religious minorities.

But in a sign of how scared the largely secular-leaning ruling party is of Islamist street power, party leaders haven't supported calls for reforming the laws. Instead, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani and others have repeatedly insisted they won't touch the statutes.

After the assassination of the Punjab governor, his confessed killer, bodyguard Mumtaz Qadri, was greeted with showers of rose petals from many lawyers who went to watch his initial court hearing.

Weeks afterward, another prominent opponent of the blasphemy laws, National Assembly member Sherry Rehman, dropped her bid to get them changed. The People's Party member said she had to abide by party leaders' decisions. She, too, faces death threats and has been living with heavy security.

The U.S.-based Human Rights Watch said after Bhatti's assassination that the government should stop appeasing militants.

No one has been put to death for blasphemy in Pakistan because courts typically throw out cases or commute the sentences. Still, some who are released are later killed by extremists or have to go into hiding. Others accused of blasphemy spend long periods in prison while waiting for their cases to wind through the courts.

The laws came under renewed international scrutiny late last year when a 45-year-old Christian woman, Asia Bibi, was sentenced to death for allegedly insulting Islam's Prophet Muhammad.

The family of Bibi -- a mother of five -- insists she was falsely accused over a personal dispute. There have been appeals from around the globe, including one from Pope Benedict XVI, to pardon her. But the government has said it is first waiting for a court ruling on her appeal.

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Associated Press Writer Nahal Toosi contributed to this report.