Islamist Leader Blames CIA for Murder of Pakistan’s Only Christian Government Minister

March 3, 2011 - 6:00 AM

Pakistan Shahbaz Bhatti

Pakistani Christians condemn the death of Shahbaz Bhatti, the federal minister for minority affairs, in Karachi on Wednesday, March 2, 2011. (AP Photo/Shakil Adil)

(CNSNews.com) – An Islamist party leading a campaign in support of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws is blaming the CIA for the murder of the country’s only Christian government minister, who had angered extremists by calling for an end to the strict and repressive laws.

Shahbaz Bhatti, the federal minister for minority affairs, was gunned down in Islamabad on Wednesday morning in an attack widely attributed to Islamic extremists. In a pamphlet left at the murder scene, the group known as Tehrik-i-Taliban claimed responsibility and linked the assassination to Bhatti’s opposition to the blasphemy laws.

But Munawar Hasan, leader of the Islamist party Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), called the killing a conspiracy aimed at diverting attention from the controversy over Raymond Davis, a detained American official on trial for shooting two Pakistanis.

“There was even the possibility of the CIA hand behind the murder in order to intensify pressure on the Pakistan government for Raymond’s release,” a JI statement quoted Hasan as saying.

The Davis case has strained bilateral relations. The U.S. says his treatment violates diplomatic immunity and is demanding his return; the Pakistani government, under Islamist and nationalist pressure, has resisted. U.S. media outlets reported last week that Davis worked with the CIA.

Munawar Hasan

Jamaat-e-Islami leader Munawar Hasan (Photo: Jamaat-e-Islami)

Despite Hasan’s accusations, there is no evidence that the assassination of Bhatti is anything other than what it appears to be – the murder of a man who became a hated figure among radical Muslims determined to prevent any tentative attempts to amend the blasphemy laws.

JI has been a vocal supporter of the laws, under which Christians and others have been imprisoned and in some cases sentenced to death for allegedly insulting Mohammed or the Qur’an. Hasan has addressed numerous rallies called to defend the laws in recent months.

Bhatti was the first holder of the federal minorities portfolio, a job that made him the public face and champion of one of the Islamic world’s most exposed Christian minorities.

The issue of the blasphemy laws took center stage after an international outcry followed the death sentence handed down last November to a Christian woman in Punjab province, Asia Bibi.

Worried about initiatives to amend the laws, Muslim radicals then launched a public campaign demanding that the government leave the blasphemy laws intact and execute Asia Bibi.

Facing the backlash, the government repeatedly has said it has no plans to change the law, in turn drawing criticism from human rights groups for “appeasing” militants.

Meanwhile Bhatti reported receiving a growing number of death threats while extremist clerics issued fatwas calling for his death.

His death came just weeks after Christians expressed surprise and delight when he survived a major cabinet reshuffle. Sources close to President Asif Ali Zardari at the time were cited as saying the government had come under international pressure to retain Bhatti, to demonstrate the importance of religious tolerance.

‘Brightest light of hope’

A month ago Bhatti met with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Washington, who said afterwards that she had voiced strong U.S. support for religious freedom in Pakistan.

The meeting was set up by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), an independent statutory body, which in 2009 awarded Bhatti its first religious freedom medallion.

USCIRF chairman Leonard Leo described Bhatti Wednesday as “a true hero for human rights and religious freedom for all.”

He urged the U.S. and other governments to bring pressure on the Pakistan government to amend the blasphemy laws, which he said “embolden extremists.”

“We believed he was Pakistan’s brightest light of hope for the advancement of freedom of religion and human rights more broadly,” Leo said of Bhatti. “Who will now take up his work? Do the highest levels of Pakistan’s government have the resolve, courage, and leadership to do so? To date, they haven’t demonstrated those qualities.”

The USCIRF has been calling since 2002 for the government to name Pakistan as a “country of particular concern,” a designation that allows the U.S. to apply measures including sanctions against governments that are responsible for, or tolerate, violations of religious freedom.

The State Department each year has overruled the recommendation.

Clinton in a statement Wednesday said she was “shocked and outraged” by Bhatti’s killing.

“The United States remains committed to working with the government and people of Pakistan to build a more stable and prosperous future for all – a future in which violent extremists are no longer able to silence the voices of tolerance and peace,” she said.

‘Insane barbarity’

Asif Aqeel, executive director of the Pakistan office of the European Center for Law and Justice (ECLJ), called Bhatti a hero to Pakistan’s Christians.

“The Christian community laments his death as if one of our own family members had fallen prey to the insane barbarity that has gripped the country,” he said. “We will always remember and honor him and pay tribute to his sacrifice.”

Bhatti was the second senior public figure killed in two months over their opposition to the blasphemy laws.

Punjab governor Salman Taseer, a Muslim who sought a pardon for Bibi, was shot dead in January by a member of his bodyguard, who said he killed him because he opposed the laws.

Weeks later a Pakistani lawmaker who had introduced a bill in parliament to amend the laws abruptly dropped her campaign after receiving death threats and failing to win the support of the ruling party.

Most troubling for many have been the public expressions of support for the violence. Taseer’s assassin, who is in custody awaiting trial, has been feted at public rallies as an Islamic hero, and hundreds have demonstrated outside his place of detention.

“Societies that tolerate such actions end up being consumed by those actions,” Vice President Joe Biden warned during a visit to Islamabad days after the governor’s assassination.

Despite the dangers underlined by Bhatti’s death, campaigners said Wednesday they would not stop agitating against the blasphemy laws.

Naveed Walter, president of the non-governmental organization Human Rights Focus Pakistan (HRFP), saluted Bhatti and said the campaign against the blasphemy laws would proceed.

Another NGO, Citizens for Democracy, demanded that the government apprehend Bhatti’s killers and bring them to justice, and also act against those inciting violence.

“Hate-mongering through the pulpit, on television talk shows, pamphlets and banners have cost us another life and still more are under threat,” it said. “The government must act immediately to put a stop to this.”