- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 2, 2011

ISLAMABAD (AP) — Assailants purportedly sent by al Qaeda and the Taliban killed the only Christian member of Pakistan’s federal Cabinet Wednesday, spraying his car with bullets outside his mother’s driveway. It was the second assassination in two months of a high-profile opponent of blasphemy laws that impose the death penalty for insulting Islam.

The killing of Shahbaz Bhatti, a 42-year-old Roman Catholic, further undermines Pakistan’s shaky image as a moderate Islamic state and could deepen the political turmoil in this nuclear-armed, U.S.-allied state where militants frequently stage suicide attacks.

The Vatican said the assassination shows that the pope’s warnings about the danger to Christians in the region are fully justified.

Mr. Bhatti, a campaigner for human rights causes, had apparently been aware of the danger he was in and left a video-taped message with the British Broadcasting Corp. and the Al Jazeera satellite TV station to be broadcast in the event of his death.

In the farewell statement, Mr. Bhatti said he was threatened by the Taliban and al Qaeda, but that this would not deter him from speaking for “oppressed and marginalized persecuted Christians and other minorities” in Pakistan. “I will die to defend their rights,” he said on the tape. “These threats and these warnings cannot change my opinions and principles.”

Despite the threats, Mr. Bhatti, who had been assigned bodyguards, was without protection when he visited his mother in the capital of Islamabad on Wednesday afternoon, police said. The politician had just pulled out of the driveway of the house, where he frequently stayed, when three men standing nearby opened fire, said Gulam Rahim, a witness.

Two of the men opened the door of the car and tried to pull Mr. Bhatti out, Mr. Rahim said, while a third man fired his Kalashnikov rifle repeatedly into the dark-colored Toyota, shattering the windows. The gunmen then sped away in a white Suzuki Mehran car, said Mr. Rahim who took shelter behind a tree. Mr. Bhatti was dead on arrival at an area hospital, while his driver was not harmed.

In leaflets left at the scene of the shooting, al Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban Movement in Punjab province claimed responsibility. They blamed the government for putting Mr. Bhatti, an “infidel Christian,” in charge of an unspecified committee, apparently referring to one said to be reviewing the blasphemy laws. The government has repeatedly said such a committee does not exist.

“With the blessing of Allah, the mujahedeen will send each of you to hell,” said the note, which did not name any other targets.

Government officials condemned the killing, but made no reference to the blasphemy law controversy.

“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.”

Mr. Bhatti, who was minister for religious minorities, had been given police and paramilitary guards, said Wajid Durrani, a senior police official. He said Mr. Bhatti asked his official guards not to travel with him while he stayed with his mother. His father died recently.

Aides and friends confirmed that Mr. Bhatti preferred to keep a low profile — without guards — while staying at his mother’s. Wasif Ali Khan, a friend, said Mr. Bhatti repeatedly requested a bullet-proof car but did not received one.

Mr. Bhatti was also nervous about using security guards, Mr. Khan said, because it was a bodyguard who in January killed Punjab province Gov. Salman Taseer, another opponent of the blasphemy laws. To the horror of Pakistan’s besieged liberals, many ordinary citizens praised the governor’s assassin — a sign of the spread of hard-line Islamist thought in the country.

With the death of Mr. Bhatti, Pakistani Christians lost their most prominent advocate. Christians are the largest religious minority in the country, where roughly 5 percent of 180 million people are not Muslim. They have very little political power and tend to work in lower-level jobs, such as street sweeping.

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