Taliban militants on Wednesday shot dead Pakistan’s only Christian government minister for challenging a law that mandates the death penalty for insulting Islam, the latest sign of instability in a country where many fear radical Islam is becoming more mainstream.
Minister for minorities Shahbaz Bhatti is the second senior official this year to be assassinated for opposing the blasphemy law.
These killings, along with frequent militant attacks and chronic economic problems have raised fears for the future of US-ally and nuclear-armed Pakistan, where an unpopular coalition government is struggling to cope.Bhatti was shot in broad daylight in the capital, Islamabad, police said. The Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility for the killing, saying the minister had been "punished" for being a blasphemer.
In his statement after visiting the Islamabad hospital where Bhatti was pronounced dead on arrival, Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani said that such acts would not deter the government’s resolve to fight terrorism and extremism. He promised swift action.
Bhatti was one of the few ministers in the cabinet who publicly condemned the killing of Salmaan Taseer. At the time, Bhatti had told media he knew that his life was in danger but that he “would not let the forces of darkness silence me.”
In the aftermath of the case of Aasia Bibi — a Christian woman who was given the death sentence for allegedly committing blasphemy — Taseer, Bhatti and Sherry Rehman came under fire by religious-political parties, and the PPP distanced itself from Taseer and Rehman, who had submitted a bill in the National Assembly which proposed amendments in the blasphemy law.
In November, President Asif Ali Zardari had asked Bhatti to form a committee to review the blasphemy laws. In response to the wave of rallies against any amendments or repeal in the laws, the government later said no committee had been constituted. A report by Bhatti on Aasia Bibi’s case concluded that she had not criticised Islam and was innocent.
While PPP chairman Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari spoke out in London about the party’s commitment to protect minorities, the cabinet and Pakistan Peoples Party leaders vowed that not to allow any amendments in the blasphemy law.
In his speech at the Pakistan High Commission, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari had addressed minorities, saying, “Those who wish to harm you for a crime you did not commit will have to go through me first.”
(With Reuters inputs)