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“We have been orphaned today!” wailed Rehman Masih, a Christian resident of Islamabad. “Now who will fight for our rights? Who will raise a voice for us? Who will help us?”

The assassination drew swift condemnation from Christian leaders elsewhere.

A Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said the slaying is a “new episode of violence of terrible gravity.” He said it “demonstrates just how justified are the the insistent statements by the pope regarding violence against Christians and religious freedom.” Rev. Lombardi noted that Pope Benedict XVI had met with Mr. Bhatti in September.

In Britain, leaders of the Anglican Church expressed shock and sorrow and urged Pakistan’s government to do more to protect Christians. The U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan, Cameron Munter, also condemned the assassination, calling Mr. Bhatti “a Pakistani patriot.”

Several Muslim leaders in Pakistan either offered a tepid condemnation or claimed the assassination was part of foreign-led conspiracy to drive a wedge between Muslims and Christians.

The blasphemy laws are a deeply sensitive subject in Pakistan, where most residents are Sunni Muslims and where austere versions of Islam — more common in the Middle East than South Asia — have been on the rise.

Human rights groups have long warned that the laws are vaguely worded and open to abuse because people often use them to settle rivalries or persecute religious minorities.

But in a sign of how scared the largely secular-leaning ruling party is of Islamist street power, party leaders haven’t supported calls for reforming the laws. Instead, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani and others have repeatedly insisted they won’t touch the statutes.

After the assassination of the Punjab governor, his confessed killer, bodyguard Mumtaz Qadri, was greeted with showers of rose petals from many lawyers who went to watch his initial court hearing.

Weeks afterward, another prominent opponent of the blasphemy laws, National Assembly member Sherry Rehman, dropped her bid to get them changed. The Pakistan People’s Party member said she had to abide by party leaders’ decisions. She, too, faces death threats and has been living with heavy security.

No one has been put to death for blasphemy in Pakistan because courts typically throw out cases or commute the sentences. Still, some who are released are later killed by extremists or have to go into hiding. Others accused of blasphemy spend long periods in prison while waiting for their cases to wind through the courts.

Associated Press writers Nahal Toosi in Islamabad, Ashraf Khan in Karachi, Victor L. Simpson in Rome, and Jill Lawless in London contributed to this report.