By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife with reporting from Pakistan
ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN (BosNewsLife)– Pakistani Christians and leading rights groups mourned Pakistan’s Minister for Minorities Affairs Shahbaz Bhatti, who was shot and killed Wednesday, March 2, by suspected Muslim militants after publicly criticizing controversial blasphemy legislation.
Bhatti, the only Christian in the cabinet, was assassinated outside his parents home in Islamabad, police said. He was 42.
The politician had just pulled out of the driveway when three men standing nearby opened fire, witnesses said. Two of the men reportedly opened the door and tried to pull Bhatti out, while a third man fired his Kalashnikov rifle repeatedly into the dark-colored Toyota.
Three gunmen then sped away in a white Suzuki Mehran car, according to police and witnesses. In leaflets left at the scene, al-Qaida and the Pakistani Taliban Movement in Punjab province claimed responsibility for the assassination. They blamed the government for putting Bhatti, an “infidel Christian,” in charge of an unspecified committee, apparently in reference to his support for changing the blasphemy laws.
“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 leaflets were found as Bhatti was rushed to Shifa Hospital. Medics pronounced him dead on arrival. A crying man was among the mourning supporters who gathered outside the medical facility.
There were also rallies elsewhere, as news quickly spread about the second killing of a prominent politician in as many months. In Sialkot City hundreds of the Christians braved rainy weather and rallied peacefully to protest against the murder of Minister Bhatti.
Bishop Samuel Maseeh led the demonstration and Christians chanted slogans against terrorism. As they marched trough the city, they demanded the immediate arrest of the killers, Pakistani media reported.
The Vatican also expressed outrage over the killing. In a statement Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said the murder of Batthi was a “terribly grave new act of violence” that “demonstrates that the Pope’s insistent addresses regarding violence against Christians and religious freedom have been justified.”
The assassination was expected to add to concerns among Christians, who comprise less than five percent of Pakistan’s overwhelmingly Muslim population of over 184 million people.
“His death is a terrible blow to Pakistan’s Christian community and other religious minorities,” added Nasir Saeed, the Britain director of advocacy group Center for Legal Aid, Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS), which is actively supporting Christians in Pakistan.
“It is a very desperate situation for Pakistani Christians as Mr Bhatti was one of the few people in Parliament who dared to speak up for their rights. With his death, Christians now have no voice in government,” Saeed told BosNewsLife in a statement.
“This is the second high profile killing of someone who supported change to the blasphemy laws,” he said, referring to the January assassination of Punjab Governor Salman Taseer, who was assassinated by one of his security guards.
Other friends of Bhatti also expressed their sorrow over his death. “Shahbaz Bhatti was known personally to me for twelve years,” said Stuard Windsor, National Director of Britain-based advocacy group Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW). “We worked closely with him on the causes which he passionately espoused. He was a true patriot who loved his country and wanted to see the realization of [statesman] Jinnah’s vision of a harmonious, pluralist society,” Windsor told BosNewsLife.
However, Windsor said, “he never achieved what he dedicated his life to – the eventual repeal of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. But he tried, bravely and with indefatigable spirit, and his life was a blessing to many.”
Another friend of the politician, Wasif Ali Khan, told reporters that Bhatti was nervous about using guards after the Taseer killing and had requested a bulletproof car, but had not received one.
Bhatti had been known for publicly opposing the current anti-blasphemy legislation and personally demanded the release of a Christian mother of four, Asia Bibi. She was sentenced to death for allegedly making blasphemous statements about Islam, charges she strongly denies.
The law gives the death penalty to anyone found guilty of insulting Islam or the Prophet Mohammad.
Bhatti acknowledged recently he was told that if he would continue his campaign for Bibi and for changes to the controversial legislation he would be killed. They said ” I will be assassinated, I will be beheaded. But forces of violence, forces of extremism cannot harass me, cannot threaten me,” Bhatti explained.
The minister added he received written letters and messages from Islamic militants, warning him to stop campaigning against the reported misuse of blasphemy laws and pursuing justice for victims of the 2009 anti-Christian attacks in the city of Gojra that killed some eight Christians.
He also told reporters earlier this year that only God could protect him. “I cannot trust on security…. I believe that protection can come only from heaven, so these bodyguards can’t save you.”
Bhatti stressed it was important however to “stand against these forces of terrorism because they’re terrorizing the country.”
Video footage also emerged Wednesday, March 2, in which the minister warned that, “The forces of violence, militant band organizations, Taliban and al-Qaeda — want to impose their radical philosophy in Pakistan…”
Yet, despite the apparent threats, police chief Wajid Durrani has denied that the minister had not been been provided with adequate security. However he admitted that Bhatti was not accompanied by his security detail when the attack happened.
“The squad officer told me that the minister had directed him to wait for him at his office. He used to often visit his mother’s house without a squad,” he said in a statement. “We are investigating the matter from different angles.”
Pakistan’s President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani on Wednesday, March 2, condemned the murder, and pledged that it would not deter the country from its fight against religious extremism.
U.S. CONDEMNS MURDER
Among other world leaders United States President Barack Obama also condemned the murder of Pakistan’s only Christian cabinet minister and praised him for courageously challenging the country’s blasphemy laws.
“I am deeply saddened by the assassination of Pakistan’s Minister for Minority Affairs Shahbaz Bhatti today in Islamabad, and condemn in the strongest possible terms this horrific act of violence,’ Obama said in a statement. “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 said.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who last month met Bhatti, said she was “shocked and outraged by the assassination” and warned of growing intolerance for religious minorities. “The intolerance toward minorities, particularly religious minorities, that we are seeing not only in Pakistan but elsewhere in the region … is a matter of deep distress to me personally and to our government.”