Shabhaz Bhatti, Pakistan’s Minister for Minorities and an outspoken critic of the blasphemy law, has been shot dead by gunmen who opened fire on his car in the capital, Islamabad.
Mr Bhatti was taken to hospital, but was dead on arrival. The gunmen, who were wearing shawls, escaped by car. Pamphlets issued by al-Qaeda and Tehrik-i-Taliban Punjab (a branch of the Taliban) were found at the scene, warning that anyone who criticised the blasphemy law would be shot. A Taliban spokesman later claimed that they had carried out the attack.
Mr Bhatti (42) was a member of the ruling Pakistan People’s Party, a Roman Catholic, and the cabinet’s only Christian minister. He had received death threats from Islamist militants for urging reform of the blasphemy law, which is intended to punish anyone who insults Islam and for his support of Asia Bibi. The law is often used to persecute minority faiths, and while no one convicted under it has ever been executed, more than 30 accused have been killed by lynch mobs.
A government spokesman condemned the assassination. “This is a 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.”
On 4 January 2011, Punjab Governor Salman Taseer was assassinated by his bodyguard, after visiting Christian woman Asia Bibi in prison and speaking out against the blasphemy law, under which Asia Bibi has been sentenced to death. Following the assassination of Salman Taseer, Mr Bhatti said he believed that he was the “highest target” for Muslim extremists. “I was told that if I was to continue the campaign against the blasphemy law, I will be assassinated. I will be beheaded,” he said. “But forces of violence, forces of extremism cannot harass me, cannot threaten me.” (AP, BBC, Reuters)
“Shabhaz Bhatti was a brave man”
David Turner, director of Church in Chains, has expressed his shock and sadness at the news: “Shabhaz Bhatti was a brave man who devoted his life to the cause of religious freedom in Pakistan – first as a leading campaigner with the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance and more recently as Minister for Minorities in the government of Pakistan. He was outspoken in calling for changes to the blasphemy law and it is this stand and his support for Asia Bibi that has led directly to his death. Like many others, I pray that his death will not silence the voice of those who call for freedom and tolerance in Pakistan.”
When David met Shabhaz at a conference in London in October 2009, Shabhaz told him, “Christians in Pakistan are being attacked, imprisoned and killed under the pretext of committing blasphemy and the blasphemy charges being brought against Christians are false. The blasphemy laws have created intolerance, disharmony and a sense of insecurity among minorities. They have remained a tool in the hands of extremists to victimise minorities and innocent Muslims in Pakistan.
“Religious freedom is very close to my heart – I have been involved in working for it for over 20 years since I was a schoolboy. During that time I have faced many difficulties including assassination attempts, imprisonment and discrimination. It is the key objective of my life. I live for religious freedom and am willing to die for this cause. I want to work for legislation so that no-one will suffer discrimination.”
Shabhaz was keenly aware of the danger that he was in, asking, “Please pray for me (one minute each day) so that I can more effectively serve the suffering minority people of Pakistan”.