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Gunmen kill Christian Cabinet minister in Pakistan

- 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.

"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.

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