As Pakistan's President Fills Sensitive Cabinet Post, Christians See Concession to Islamic Radicals

May 6, 2011 - 12:05 AM

Pakistani Christians protest persecution

With black ribbons tied around their wrists, Christians in Pakistan attend a rally against the country’s blasphemy laws in Lahore on Sunday, Nov. 21, 2010. (AP Photo/K.M. Chaudary)

(CNSNews.com) – While the world’s attention was riveted on the death of Osama bin Laden, Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari on Monday appointed a Muslim to the cabinet post last held by a Christian who was assassinated for his opposition to Pakistan’s blasphemy laws.

In the charged atmosphere surrounding the blasphemy laws – which make insults against Mohammed and the Qur’an crimes punishable by death – the little-noticed move constitutes a significant concession to Muslim radicals, critics say.

Appointing a Christian or another minority member to succeed the slain federal minister for minorities affairs, Shahbaz Bhatti, would have sent a strong message of support for religious freedom. Instead, the post went to a Muslim from a political party that supports the blasphemy laws.

Monday’s appointment of Riaaz Hussain Pirzada came exactly two months after Bhatti was shot dead as he left his Islamabad home. Pamphlets left by the unidentified assailants accused him of blasphemy and said the punishment was death.

As the first person to hold the federal cabinet position and the only Christian in the cabinet, Bhatti became the voice of Pakistan’s beleaguered non-Muslim minorities, including one of the world’s most vulnerable Christian communities.

The blasphemy laws gained fresh notoriety late last year when a Christian woman, Asia Bibi, was sentenced to death for “blaspheming” Mohammed. Bhatti advocated for her release.

His March 2 assassination was deplored around the world, with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton saying she was “shocked and outraged” and Pope Benedict XVI  praying for him at the Vatican.

Shahbaz Bhatti

Minorities Affairs Minister Shahbaz Bhatti was shot dead in Islamabad on March 2, 2011. (Photo: Pakistan Minorities Ministry)

Among the reactions came calls for a successor who would take forward Bhatti’s commitment. The World Evangelical Alliance urged Zardari’s government to honor his work and memory “by ensuring the swift appointment of another strong advocate for minorities to build upon all that he accomplished.”

But Leonard Leo, chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), voiced concern that this would not be the case.

“Who will now take up his work?” Leo asked of Bhatti. “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 non-governmental organization Human Rights Focus Pakistan (HRFP) said Thursday it had deep reservations about the new appointment.

“In a scenario when minorities are facing persecution, the appointment of a Muslim minority minister has revealed the true face of Pakistan’s government,” HRFP president Naveed Walter told CNSNews.com. “It has also sent a message that it is prepared to compromise to placate fundamentalists, by giving the post to a Muslim.”

Walter noted that before Bhatti was killed, radicals had put pressure on the government to remove him from the post, “unhappy with the vital role he was playing on behalf of Christians and other minorities.”

“The big question minorities now have is, will the new minister for minorities affairs work for the total repeal of the blasphemy laws and the release of its victims who are in prison?”

The Pakistan Christian Congress also condemned the appointment, calling the move “shameful” and saying the government had “undermined” the sacrifice made by the assassinated minister.

Pakistani Christians demonstrate

<b><b>Holding placards and photos of Shahbaz Bhatti, Pakistani Christians and other minorities march in Islamabad on May 2 to mark the recent decision to allocate four seats in the federal Senate to minority representatives – an achievement attributed to the slain Minorities Affairs Minister. (Photo: Pakistan Minorities Ministry)</b></b>

Drive to amend law loses steam

Bhatti’s murder came two months after Punjab governor Salman Taseer, a Muslim liberal who had taken up Asia Bibi’s case, was killed by a member of his bodyguard. The killer, who said he shot Taseer because he opposed the blasphemy laws, was hailed at public rallies as an Islamic hero.

Pakistani Christians hoped that the high-profile assassination would be a catalyst for changes to the blasphemy laws. Instead, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani assured Muslim leaders that the government has no plans to change them.

Then, a leading lawmaker in Zardari’s ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), Sherry Rehman, said she was abandoning an initiative to have the laws amended, having failed to win support from her own party. Rehman, like Bhatti and Taseer, had received death threats for her stance on the law.

Against that backdrop, Christians waited anxiously to see who would be appointed to succeed Bhatti.

After Bhatti’s murder his brother, Paul Bhatti, was named an advisor to the prime minister on minority affairs. But that position does not hold the clout of a federal ministry, and some Christians had hoped Paul Bhatti, who is president of the non-governmental All Pakistan Minorities Alliance, would be named as successor to his brother.

Pirzada’s naming to the post instead was part of a broader coalition deal. Zardari on Monday brought into the cabinet 14 members of the Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid (PML-Q), a centrist party established by then military ruler Gen. Pervez Musharraf in 2002.

Pakistan’s The News daily reports that Pirzada, a PML-Q lawmaker, had been in line to get a post as “minister of state” (a second-tier position in the cabinet) but insisted on becoming a fully-fledged “federal minister.” Zardari, in his capacity as PPP co-chairman, led the negotiations.

One of the 14 PML-Q newcomers, Akram Masih Gill, is a Christian, but he was given the post of “minister of state” for health.

The PML-Q party supports the blasphemy laws.

Last December, amid a furor over the sentencing to death of Asia Bibi, PML-Q joined other parties in launching a campaign to “protect” the laws, with PML-Q leader Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain saying his party would oppose any attempt in parliament to amend them.

A month later – after Taseer’s assassination – the party reiterated that stance, saying in late January that PML-Q would take all steps necessary to “guard the sanctity of the blasphemy laws,” and would be the first party to quit parliament if they were changed.

Insulting Mohammed, Qur'an

Pakistan’s blasphemy laws were broadened in the 1980s to prohibit “deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage the religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs.” Sub-sections deal specifically with insults directed against the Qur’an and Mohammed.

Punishment was “life imprisonment” – 25 years in Pakistan – and the government in 1992 introduced the option of the death penalty for a person convicted of blasphemy.

According to the National Commission for Justice and Peace, a Catholic body, 964 people were charged under the blasphemy laws between 1986 and 2009. While no executions had been carried out, 32 people charged with blasphemy had been killed by angry Muslims, it said.

Since 2002, the USCIRF has been calling for the government to name Pakistan as a “country of particular concern” for religious freedom violations, a call it repeated when releasing its latest annual report last week.

Designation allows the U.S. to apply measures, including sanctions, against governments that are responsible for, or tolerate, violations of religious freedom.

The State Department has consistently overruled the recommendation.