The brutal murder of Pakistan’s Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti has provoked worldwide outrage and condemnation.
Mr Bhatti, the only Christian minister in government, was gunned down in his car in broad daylight on Wednesday in a residential area of Islamabad. He was on his way to a cabinet meeting. He is the second high-profile opponent of Pakistan’s draconian blasphemy laws to be killed in Islamabad this year after Salman Taseer, the Punjab governor, was shot by his own guard in January.
The Vatican described the assassination as “an unspeakable act of violence” and the UN Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, said Pakistan was being “poisoned by extremism.” He demanded urgent reform of the blasphemy laws, saying, “I hope the government of Pakistan will … reflect on how it can more effectively confront the extremism poisoning Pakistani society.”
US secretary of state Hillary Clinton, who met Bhatti recently, said she was “shocked and outraged” and US President Barack Obama said he “courageously challenged the blasphemy laws of Pakistan. He was clear-eyed about the risks of speaking out, and despite innumerable death threats he insisted he had a duty to his fellow Pakistanis to defend equal rights and tolerance.”
British Prime Minister David Cameron said the murder of the Catholic minister was “absolutely brutal and unacceptable.”
He told the House of Commons, “It is absolutely shocking news. I will send not only our condolences but our clearest possible message to the government and people of Pakistan that this is simply unacceptable.” He said the murder demonstrates the “huge problem we have in the world with intolerance.”
The Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams, leader of the worldwide Anglican church, expressed his “shock and sorrow” in a joint statement with the Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu. He urged Pakistan to protect its minorities, saying the murder increased fears about the security of Christians in the country.
“It is with the greatest shock and sorrow that we have heard of the assassination of Mr Shahbaz Bhatti,” he said. “This further instance of sectarian bigotry and violence will increase anxiety worldwide about the security of Christians and other religious minorities in Pakistan, and we urge that the government of Pakistan will do all in its power to bring to justice those guilty of such crimes and to give adequate protection to minorities.”
Manzoor Moghal, chairman of the UK Muslim Forum said, “What has happened is sad, shocking and an indictment of the utter lawlessness prevailing in Pakistan. Until Pakistan is able to be properly democratic, the application of the blasphemy law should be suspended.”
The national director of Christian Solidarity Worldwide, Stuart Windsor, said: “We are appalled and deeply grieved by this news. Shahbaz Bhatti was known personally to me for twelve years, and 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 realisation of Jinnah’s vision of a harmonious, pluralist society. 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.”
Pakistani officials also strongly condemned Bhatti’s killing, saying attempts to destabilise the country would fail. Yet inside the country there was a curious acceptance of the murder with TV stations reporting the news then turning to the cricket instead of to the dirges and prolonged inquests that usually follow such dramatic events.
Witnesses said Bhatti’s killers arrived in a small white car that blocked the road as Bhatti left the neat house he shared with his mother, whose husband died six weeks ago.
Kalashnikov bullets tore through the windscreen and they dragged the driver out and continued firing through a side window. Bhatti was alone. Officials said that his police guard was due to meet him at his office and his requests for a bulletproof car and a house in the high security ministers’ enclave had not been granted. As they left, the gunmen threw down pamphlets calling Bhatti “an infidel Christian” who deserved death for challenging the blasphemy laws.
Shahbaz Bhatti was an unassuming man with a gentle manner which concealed great courage. He defied death threats to continue fighting for the reform of laws which he said are used to persecute religious minorities. In January ( 2011) he told the BBC he had been threatened with beheading.
He said, “I was told that if I was to continue the campaign against the blasphemy law, I will be assassinated. I will be beheaded. But forces of violence, forces of extremism cannot harass me, cannot threaten me.”
He predicted his own death at the hands of the Taliban but refused to go into hiding, saying he was ready to die for his beliefs:
“I know what is the meaning of the cross and I’m following the cross and I’m ready to die for a cause.
“I’m living for my community and for suffering people. I will die to defend their rights. I won’t be silenced.”
Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said in a statement:
“We assure Mr Bhatti’s family of our prayers and deep sympathy, and promise our continuing support for all those of whatever faiths who are working for justice and stability in Pakistan.”
He said the killing should make everyone become aware of the urgent importance of defending both religious freedom and Christians who are subjected to violence and persecution.
Just over two months ago Shahbaz Bhatti was asked to record a message to be released in the event of his death. He said:
“The forces of violence, militant banned organisations, the Taliban and pro al-Qaida, they want to impose their radical philosophy in Pakistan and whoever stands against their radical philosophy, they threaten them.
“When I’m leading this campaign against the sharia law, for the abolishment of the blasphemy law and speaking for the oppressed and marginalised persecuted Christian and other minorities, these Taliban threaten me, but I want to share that I believe in Jesus Christ, who has given his own life for us.”
A Christian mother-of-five, Asia Bibi, is on death row after being found guilty of blaspheming in her Punjab village in June 2009, a charge she denies. Although no one convicted under the blasphemy laws has ever been executed, more than 30 of those accused have been killed by lynch mobs.
Sherry Rehman, an MP who introduced a private member’s bill to ditch the blasphemy law death penalty and amend clauses to make miscarriages of justice less likely, says she receives death threats every half hour by telephone and email:
“There’s a very clear and present danger to the fabric and soul of Pakistan,” she said from her home in Karachi, where she is under tight private security.
A Muslim father and son have been handed a life prison sentence in Punjab province after they were convicted under the blasphemy law. They deny tearing down a poster about a celebration of the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday outside their grocery shop.
The allegations were said to stem from a sectarian row with a rival Sunni group.